Inside the fall’s most gripping quarterback derbies.
The System: Like the old wishbone it’s derived from, Johnson’s system has always relied heavily on the quarterback as a runner, regardless of his actual, you know, running ability. At Navy, a program synonymous with pedestrian athletes across the board, the quarterback regularly handled at least as heavy a load on the ground (if not heavier) than any other single position:
It’s very fair to speculate based on their size, speed, and paltry passing efforts that no member of the club populated by Craig Candeto, Aaron Polanco, Lamar Owens, Brian Hampton and the epically-named Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada could have started at quarterback at any other school in Division I, except maybe the academy’s similarly option-bound, talent-bereft rivals at Army and Air Force. Yet all five succeeded as runners and lit the fire of the most succesful five-year run in Annapolis since before the the first Great War. With relatively better athletes, the flexbone tore up the I-AA ranks at Georgia Southern, where Johnson’s Eagles won back-to-back national championships in 1999-2000 with the same reliance on the quarterback keep (that, and regular doses of the original Adrian Peterson).
Despite his track record, Johnson will probably have more reason to introduce a little balance into the nation’s most run-oriented system at Tech, in part because he inherits guys with more viable arm strength than he ever had to work with at Navy, and in part because the stiffer defenses he’ll face in the ACC are less likely to yield big gains to such a one-dimensional offense. The Midshipmen regularly led or nearly led the nation in yards per pass attempt because defenses were so shocked and out of position after staying at home for a dozen consecutive runs, but Johnson has pledged a more balanced approach and will probably be forced to deliver on that promise on a few occasions in such an overwhelmingly defensive league.
The Young Runner: Josh Nesbitt’s future in most offenses would be at running back or receiver, because -- while undeniably fast -- he ain’t much for the throwin’ ‘n such: he was 5-of-13 last year with two interceptions as a true freshman and didn’t throw more than three passes in any game. That line can result in some statistical hilarity (he had sky-high ratings of 226 and 192.4 when he completed his only attempt, for example, and an inconceivable 824.8 when he completed a 47-yard touchdown on his only attempt against North Carolina, interspersed with negative ratings for throwing picks against Virginia Tech and Georgia), but not much confidence in his future as a passer.
In an offense that relies so heavily on its quarterback to run, though, Nesbitt might be a perfect fit -- he’s built like a running back (6’1”, 215) and ran like a running back when called upon, which was frequently over the second half of the year: Nesbitt had 287 on 43 carries in the last seven games, or about 6.7 per carry, and was about three times as likely to run as to throw (although it’s hard to pinpoint without game film how many of those runs came on called passes). And while he had no idea what he was doing the passing game, there was one flash of what might happen to defenses that overplay that tendency:
Again, that was Nesbitt’s only remotely downfleld completion of the year, but in an offense designed to strike big on a very small number of passes, one successful bomb every dozen attempts or so is exactly what the gameplan ordered -- as long as he cuts the interceptions.
The Veteran Slinger: Even while Nesbitt established himself fairly quickly as the “quarterback of the future,” regime change or no, but when the doomed coaches looked to the bench to relieve similarly doomed Taylor Bennett against Georgia and Fresno State, they turned first to Calvin Booker, an Auburn transfer who played the big-armed, pocketbound Hyde to Nesbitt’s scrambling Jekyll. Booker got most of his snaps in the bowl game, hitting 7-of-15 for 116 yards, one touchdown and one pick in a futile effort under an interim administration, but he offers Johnson the kind of pro size (6’4”, 235, up about 30 pounds since Auburn lured him from Atlanta in 2004) and arm he’s never had at his disposal before. If Johnson has any inclination to insist on balance and/or a consistently productive passing game, Booker is far more likely to hold up as a conventional, every-down passer. And it’s not like he’s Dan Marino back there, athletically.
The Young ‘Uns: Jaybo Shaw, in addition to sporting a classic “I can’t believe he’s white” first name (if it was spaced in the tradition of caucasians from Georgia, i.e. “Jay Bo,” there’d be no question), is allegedly one of the best incoming “dual threat” quarterbacks in the country and came in expecting to compete for the job right away. Shaw was offered as a receiver by South Florida and actually has a faster listed 40 time (4.45) than Nesbitt (4.58), whatever that’s worth, so his reputed athleticism is legit; he’s run the option in organized football since he could barely walk, was the first player to commit to Johnson after he was hired, and at a meager 170-175 pounds fits right in with the undersized scrappers Johnson’s worked with in the past. And if there’s one thing we definitely know about Jaybo before he takes a college snap, it’s that he can scrap. He’s drawing strong reviews in practice so far and likely will not redshirt, if you heed the buzz.
Coming out of the spring, though, it was another freshman, obscure redshirt Bruce Dykes, sitting behind Nesbitt (and in front of Booker) on the preseason depth chart. Dykes was a walk-on last year and is the kind of guy who’s praised for “showing the ability to take hits” in practice, neither of which is exactly what you want in a potential starter; it’s very possible Johnson is playing the “don’t get beat by a walk-on” card to light the proverbial fire under the more talented kids. Nevertheless, Dykes took snaps with the first team, has a few generic high school awards in multiple sports that indicate he’s not a complete schlub, and he entered fall practice right in the mix. So there you go.
The Smart Money: Nesbitt is clearly the favorite for this type of scheme and all projections have him taking the lead role. Booker is the only other option with actual game experience, but it seems more likely a challenge will come -- if it comes -- from Shaw, who was made to run Johnson’s system (to the extent he was made to do anything in football, at least) and enthusiastically committed to it. But many elite schools were after Nesbitt, to play all variety of positions; Shaw’s other option to play Division I quarterback was at Middle Tennessee. Nesbitt has a year and about 30 pounds on the freshman, but it’s less about waiting in line than just putting the best athlete on the field.