THE WORDS weredelivered in a calm yet commanding voice. "We get the ball first in thesecond half," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson told his players at halftimeof their Nov. 29 game at Georgia in which they trailed 28--12. "We willscore on that possession, and that will change everything." A few minuteslater, on the Yellow Jackets' first snap after intermission, quarterback JoshNesbitt tossed the ball to Jonathan Dwyer on an option play, and the 6-foot,235-pound running back broke three tackles while galloping 60 yards down theright sideline for a touchdown. From there, Georgia Tech went on to beat theBulldogs 45--42, snapping a seven-game losing streak to its rival. And Dwyer,who rushed for 144 yards that day, showed the SEC what coaches and players inthe ACC already knew: He's as hard to bring down as any running back in thecountry.
"Jonathan hasgreat lower-body strength, and that makes him very difficult to tackle,"says Brian Bohannon, the Yellow Jackets' quarterbacks and running backs coach."Plus, for a 235-pound guy, he can run as well as anyone. We have big, bigexpectations for him this season."
Indeed, for histeam to have a shot at getting into a BCS bowl, Dwyer, who was the ACCoffensive player of the year as a sophomore in 2008 (with a conference-high1,395 rushing yards), will have to contribute another monster season. But theentire offense—with nine returning starters—has to kick Johnson's option-basedspread attack into a higher gear this season, the coach's second in Atlantaafter six years at Navy. Though Georgia Tech ranked fourth in the country inrushing last year, big adjustments had to be made: For instance, the entirestarting line had been recruited by Johnson's predecessor, Chan Gailey, to playa pro-style offense.
"There's nocomparison between last year and this year in terms of how much morecomfortable we are with this offense," Dwyer says. "Instead of thinkingabout everything we do, we're just playing. We're clicking as a unit, and thatmakes you play faster on the field."
Dwyer, fromMarietta, Ga., turned down scholarship offers from Florida, Georgia and SouthCarolina to attend Tech. In what could be his final college season—barring asetback, he is viewed by many scouts as a first-round pick in next year's NFLdraft—Dwyer believes that the Yellow Jackets can win their first national titlesince 1990. "If we keep improving like we did during the spring," hesays, "we can shock the country."
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DWYER IS AS HARD TO STOP AS ANY BACK IN THECOUNTRY.
COACH: Paul Johnson (2nd year)
2008 RECORD: 9--4 (5--3 in ACC)
FINAL AP RANK: 22
RETURNING STARTERS: 17 Offense 9, Defense 8
5 Jacksonville State
17 at Miami
26 North Carolina
3 at Mississippi State
10 at Florida State
17 Virginia Tech
24 at Virginia
31 at Vanderbilt
7 Wake Forest
14 at Duke
If the Yellow Jackets, who lost to the Hokies 20--17last season in Blacksburg, can win this slugfest, they should be in goodposition to take their first Coastal Division championship since 2006.
Last year Georgia Tech ranked ahead of only threeDivision I-A teams in passing, averaging 99.2 yards on a meager 12.7 attemptsper game. Expect the Yellow Jackets to throw more this season to keep opponentsfrom stacking the box with nine defenders.
PAUL ABELL/US PRESSWIRE
Nesbitt won't throw much, but he averaged 15 yards a completion in '08.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELSA/GETTY IMAGES
Dwyer, who rushed for 1,395 yards last year, says of the offense, "We're clicking as a unit, and that makes you play faster."