Let’s get one misconception cleared up before proceeding any further – it would be incorrect to label Johnson’s ground-heavy scheme as a basic triple-option look.
"[The triple option] is one play,” Johnson said early in his tenure at Georgia Tech. “We run that play maybe twenty percent of the time. Depending on the game, sometimes less than that. It would be just like calling the I-formation a sprint draw offense."
Johnson started implementing option concepts during his time at Georgia Southern and as teams slowly caught on to his schemes, he would add different variations of other offenses to supplement his playbook. Georgia Tech employs a variety of reads, pitches and traps, as well as taking advantage of stacked boxes with play-action passes, to confuse defenses.
Butch Davis’s 4-3 pro-style defense struggled to contain Johnson’s offense outside of a decisive 28-7 victory in 2008, prompting questions as to whether or not Fedora’s new 4-2-5 look would provide a better method of attack.
According to UNC defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, the differences in the defensive scheme are negated by the sole focus in defending Georgia Tech – discipline.
“I don’t think there’s a difference because at the end of the day, everybody has an assignment,” Williams said on Monday. “If one guy misses an assignment, it’s a touchdown.”
Even the comments by Fedora and his predecessor are eerily similar. Compare this quotes from Fedora on Monday and Davis in 2009:
Fedora: "It‘s assignment discipline.”
Davis: “You better be disciplined.”
Fedora: “You have got to know your job and you've got to do your job and you don't worry about doing somebody else's job. You just do your job.”
Davis: “Guys have to read their keys and have to know exactly what their responsibilities are, because they will make you pay big time if you’re out of position.”
Fedora: “It sounds easier than it is, I can assure you, because it's hard to duplicate the speed of a game in practice.”
Davis: “One of the things that you have to caution your own team about is the speed at which we’re going to be able to execute it in practice will nowhere near match the speed at which they execute it.”
Fedora, however, has experience on his side, at least in terms of exposure to a similar style of offense. The first-year UNC head coach spent two years at Air Force coaching wide receivers in Fisher DeBerry’s triple-option offense.
That knowledge is not easily transferred to players, though, as evidenced by Navy – Johnson’s former team – churning out 421 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns against Fedora’s Southern Miss squad last season. The Golden Eagles won 63-35, thanks in part to holding Navy scoreless on its first two trips into the red zone.
The triple-option aspect of Johnson’s offense gets the bulk of attention due to its uniqueness and complexity through three potential run options on any given play. Defenses must first stop the dive play, followed by the quarterback, then the pitch.
Toss in some play-action and UNC’s miscue-ridden secondary will have to play flawless to prevent easy touchdowns. Last season in Atlanta, UNC safety Brian Gupton was late rolling over the top to cover Yellow Jacket wide receiver Stephen Hill, who strolled into the end zone for a 59-yard score. Hill dropped a wide-open touchdown pass in the same exact scenario later in the fourth quarter.
That doesn’t bode well for a Tar Heel secondary that allowed a pair of N.C. State touchdown passes – including one for 83 yards on 3rd-and-23 – after glaring busted coverages.
“They have to be very disciplined with their assignments,” Fedora said of his defense. “You just can’t totally commit to the run, because the next thing you know, you do that and they play-action you and they throw it over your head.”
North Carolina has been effective this season in defending the run (111.0 ypg, 19th nationally), while Georgia Tech hasn’t been as explosive as it has in recent years. The Yellow Jackets still rank fourth nationally in rushing offense (318.2 ypg) and 33rd in scoring offense (34.9 ppg).
“If you do your assignment, if everybody does their job, you can stop this offense,” Williams said. “If everybody is aggressive, does their job and plays physical and smart, I feel like you can stop this offense because this offense has a lot of flaws in it.”
Those flaws, of course, arrive in the form of fumbles due to a variety of pitches the quarterback is required to make. The Yellow Jackets have 21 fumbles through nine games, losing 10.
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