'One Step Ahead'
CLEMSON -- Conspicuously absent from the hands of Paul Johnson is a play-call sheet. Most play-callers hold the laminated listings that look like extensive restaurant menus.
For the Georgia Tech coach, there is no such guide.
Sure, Georgia Tech's simplistic yet perplexing offense consists of only several base plays. Sure, Johnson mastered the rarely-seen flexbone, employing it since his first head coaching job at Georgia Southern.
But there is another reason for an absent call sheet -- Johnson's eyes can't be distracted.
The 52-year-old, who never played college football, might be the best in the game at winning chess matches.
Johnson -- named the ACC Coach of the Year for a second straight season Tuesday -- might be the best at analyzing and attacking defensive substitutions and formations in real time.
According to Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Johnson calculates and hypothesizes as quickly and as correctly as Alabama's Nick Saban does in regard to defensive calls.
"He stays kind of a step ahead," Steele said. "Studying and talking to people who know coach Johnson very well, he's kind of like 'OK the safety just made the tackle on a 4-yard gain. We'll run the exact same playaction and run a post behind the safety, because the corner is going to be one-on-one.'
"He has a knack for that stuff. He looks for things a little different than other people."
Steele is leery of the idea No. 25 Clemson (8-4, 6-2 ACC) holds an advantage in Saturday's ACC championship, having seen 12th-ranked Georgia Tech's flexbone already this season.
"He is calling on the looks he is seeing," Steele said. "He sees so much, it's not like you watch the four games previous and say 'this is what we are going to get.'
"It doesn't relate."
Tendencies are limited.
For example, on Georgia Tech's fourth-quarter drive that set up a game-winning field goal in Week 2, the Yellow Jackets (10-2, 7-1) "ran it two times right at us" Steele said. Right where Clemson had just made a defensive substitution.
"I'm not saying it happened," said Steele of Johnson identifying the substitution, "but it was kind of odd it happened."
Chances are Johnson knew exactly where Clemson had substituted.
Johnson is always watching like former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who Steele said never used a play sheet while running the option.
The triple option's name comes Yellow Jackets quarterback Josh Nesbitt having three options on most plays:
--Hand off to fullback Jonathan Dwyer, a potential first-round NFL pick.
--Keep the ball himself.
--Or pitch to one of two A-backs flanking the offensive line.
There is actually a fourth and perhaps more dangerous option: a pass to 6-3, 220-pound wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
Georgia Tech has run 82.9 percent of the time this season, yet Thomas leads the ACC in receiving with 1,047 yards.
Thomas accounts for 44 of the team's 67 receptions, averaging 23.8 yards per catch.
Georgia Tech is so effective running the ball Steele says he can't afford to have his safeties help on Thomas, a projected first-round pick. The Yellow Jackets average 305 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.
The result is Thomas is almost always isolated on opposing corners.
Steele noted Georgia Tech has one particular set resulting in 70 runs and two passes this season. The two passes have gone for a touchdown and a 60-yard gain.
"If anybody wants to e-mail ways to double cover (Thomas) and defend the (fullback) dive and quarterback pitch … ," Steele said, "well, they probably don't want to e-mail -- they probably want to package and sell it."
Clemson safety DeAndre McDaniel intercepted Nesbitt in the first meeting, but noted it's a difficult task to play both the run and pass.
"I try to read off the line," McDaniel said. "I can't look at the receivers."
To the Clemson staff, it's about Johnson's eyes and Tech's execution.
"He'll mix up a different way to block the same play," coach Dabo Swinney said. "But when you pull it all back it's the same thing. They concentrate on excellent execution."
In the first meeting, Steele said the Yellow Jackets ran a mid-line option play blocked differently than expected, "discombobulating" the Tigers.
"The problem is you can't be a fastball pitcher," Steele said. "We threw him a fastball the whole game last time and he has it on tape. So we've had to kind of scratch some things out and throw some curveballs and knuckleballs.
"You can't give him the same look. He's too good a coach."