CLEMSON, S.C. -- Justin Thomas took the snap and rolled out to his right, moving laterally toward the sideline as Clemson’s defense swarmed. Seeing nothing but Tigers in front of him, Thomas pitched to A-back Mikell Lands-Davis. Immediately, Clemson safety Jayron Kearse blew up the play, leveling Lands-Davis in the backfield for a loss.
It wasn’t a play that swung the game. It wasn’t even Kearse’s biggest hit. But the mistakes on all points of Georgia Tech’s offense on that one snap perfectly illustrated the misery Paul Johnson is currently trying to overcome.
“The quarterback has to get downhill,” Johnson explained afterward. “But it’s hard to get downhill when nobody inside is sealed. It’s just not that simple.”
Nothing looks simple for the 2-4 Yellow Jackets, a team that opened the year with playoff aspirations and now is left wondering if it can even reach bowl eligibility. The problems are everywhere, from an offense that can’t run the ball to a defense that has struggled to get stops to a special teams unit that has looked dreadful. Where to even begin?
“We’ve got a lot of freshmen we’re playing, and some of it is the older guys aren’t playing well either,” Johnson said. “We don’t have anywhere we can rely on. You can’t count on the offense for sure. Can’t count on the defense. Can’t count on the special teams either. It’s really frustrating.”
While there are myriad issues, the frustration for Johnson has to begin on offense, where his option attack had been a plug-and-play model of efficiency for years, and now looks strangely inept.
Against Clemson last week, Georgia Tech ran for just 71 yards, the worst total output since Johnson has been head coach. In all, 40.5 percent of the Jackets’ runs went for a loss or no gain, also the low point of Johnson’s tenure. Through four games against Power 5 foes, all four losses, Georgia Tech runners are averaging just 1.07 yards per rush after first contact -- the worst rate in the ACC.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my coaching career, being as inept as we are on offense,” Johnson said.
The problems are all over the field. There’s a lack of experience at running back. The wide receivers aren’t stretching the field or blocking particularly well. The offensive line isn’t creating space. Bad checks are being made before the snap, then plays are being executed poorly after. Even Thomas has not been immune to the breakdowns.
“He needs to play better, too,” Johnson said. “It’s not like he’s doing everything right. He’s a good player, but he’s far from doing everything right, too.”
At this point, Johnson has trotted out his share of explanations, but there are no obvious answers other than simply turning the page.
The early schedule has been brutal, with Georgia Tech’s four Power 5 opponents sporting a sterling 19-3 record. But for as bad as Georgia Tech has played, its offense is still responsible for the most points Clemson, North Carolina and Duke have allowed in a game this year. As several coaches who’ve seen the Yellow Jackets have remarked, they don’t see that far off from putting it all together.
And yet, the schedule doesn’t get any easier. Pitt and FSU (combined record, 9-1) are up next, meaning Tech’s first six games against Power 5 foes will have all come against teams ranked in the top 50 nationally in total defense. The injuries continue to mount for the Jackets, too. At A-back, B-back and receiver, all have significantly less experience than the players manning those spots a year ago.
So what’s Johnson’s plan for a rebound? It might simply be hitting the reset button and letting his players relax a bit.
“Now that we’re through half the season, we kind of have to flush it and start over,” center Freddie Burden said. “We’re down on ourselves. People are disappointed. But there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
All of that had added up to a team Johnson believes might be trying too hard, overthinking simple jobs and trying to make plays all over the field rather than simply handling their job.
It wasn’t that long ago that Georgia Tech looked like an ACC heavyweight. The question now is whether the Jackets can get back to that identity or whether this year’s incarnation simply lacks the same firepower.
“We haven’t relaxed and played,” Burden said. “We’ve been so confused with things the other team is doing. We haven’t been ourselves. We have to get back to doing what we do. And we’re not doing a good job of that right now.”