Paul Johnson is often a man of few words, content to let the facts speak for themselves when it comes to his program or his style.
Like how Georgia Tech is 7-5 against ACC heavyweights Florida State and Clemson under him. Or how the Yellow Jackets notched three top-20 wins over its final four games last season. Or how his Georgia Tech and Navy teams have made 12 straight bowls, and how his Tech squads have won the Coastal division in three of his first seven years. (With Johnson claiming three ACC coach of the year honors, too.)
So when you ask him for the umpteenth time why his way always seems to come under fire, his response is, essentially: What now?
“I haven’t seen where anybody said anything about the offense or whatever,” he told ESPN.com. “Did I miss something?”
Well, there is this pretty big game at Notre Dame. And the Irish’s defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, had reportedly rubbed Johnson the wrong way upon scrapping the triple-option offense when taking over one of Johnson’s old posts, Georgia Southern, in 2006 …
“That stemmed from when he was the coach at Georgia Southern, and it’s like anything else,” Johnson said. “I think they made a lot about nothing. I don’t even know Brian. I know who he is, but I don’t know him personally. They want to act like it’s about he and I have this huge feud — we don’t even really know each other.”
Johnson does not bother to dissect why his option-based attack confounds so many. His old boss, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk, credits the “lifetime investment” Johnson has made to mastering the offense, which has puzzled the Irish team he faces Saturday.
Notre Dame is 5-3 against Navy since 2007, but the Midshipmen’s draining, efficient operation has often left the Irish wounded and shaken, which may explain their 2-6 record the week after those Navy games.
With Georgia Tech on this year’s schedule — and Navy on Oct. 10 — Notre Dame took extra measures this offseason to prepare, moving assistant Bob Elliott to an off-field role, titled “special assistant to the head coach.”
A simpler designation? Option specialist.
“Talking to other teams and other coaches,” coach Brian Kelly said of Elliott. “Just putting more information together and looking at the things that we do and what other schools do, and coming up with a plan.”
The opposition this week, led by kinetic quarterback Justin Thomas, is one of two ACC teams ever to post 65-plus points in consecutive games. Additionally, the Jackets lead the nation in points per drive (3.6), touchdown percentage (48.9) and third-down conversion percentage (58.1) since the start of 2014.
“It's really an eyes and focus game,” Irish defensive back Matthias Farley said. “Each play you have to start from zero. You have your key whoever it is on that play or call, and you have to be locked into that, because what they do affects what you do and then if you don't react in the way or manner you should, then that messes somebody else up.”
Gladchuk is adamant that the option is far more complex than the lazy “high school offense” label attached to it, something he can attest to from his 14-plus years at Navy.
“So much of it is [Johnson’s] personality: It’s his demanding an exacting precision, the way he runs it,” Gladchuk said. “When he does, it works. He’s smart. He out-thinks people. Not everyone has the same qualities that Paul does, so maybe there’s a little bit of a stigma because there are a lot of other guys who can’t figure it out; they’re just going to be critical of it. But if you take a mind like Paul has, who is a master of what this offense is all about, and you take a guy like that who is as avid a competitor as he is, and you challenge him — you fasten your seatbelt, because it’s going to be a war. It’s going to be more than a game. That’s just how he is.”
Johnson never faced VanGorder. By the time Navy played Johnson’s reportedly desired game against the Eagles in 2010, both coaches were long gone from their posts.
“I think he wanted to just reinforce that that might have been a system they should’ve stayed with, because when you take a look at the coaches that developed that offense in its purest form, some of the best of all-time came out of Georgia Southern,” Gladchuk said. “And when they went to a different system, [it was] probably his way of saying you stick with success, you stay with what got you there. And they didn’t do that.”