The Option Offense Revival, Revisited

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In 2015, The Open Man spotlit the option offense.

The scheme’s been a longtime cornerstone of college football for generations, but gained some added relevance that season between Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds playing at a level that deserved Heisman consideration; The Citadel stunning South Carolina ahead of a surprise FCS Playoffs appearance; Georgia Southern storming onto the FBS scene; and other developments around the nation.

My initial 2015 piece deserves a revisit in light of goings-on in the 2018 campaign, and with SB Nation today publishing a multi-part series on the option. The Open Man doesn’t have the same editorial infrastructure of SB Nation, so this isn’t as expansive. But the original 2015 feature offers some worthwhile context when evaluating various headlines of 2018.

At the epicenter of virtually all these stories is Georgia Southern.

Paul Johnson

Option-offense devotee Paul Johnson announced his retirement from Georgia Tech after 11 seasons, ahead of the Yellow Jackets’ ninth bowl game in that time. Johnson arrived at Tech in 2008 after overseeing a turnaround at Navy that positioned the Academy as one of the more consistent programs in college football, their 2018 just the second season to end without a bowl appearance since 2003.

Before taking over at Navy, Johnson extended the era of dominance Georgia Southern enjoyed under the late legend, Erk Russell. Johnson won two national championships in his time at Georgia Southern, overseeing a version of the triple option offense not much different from the concept he schemed up as Russell’s offensive coordinator in the 1980s.

A characteristic college football sometimes has in common with sports media, in addition to labor not being fairly compensated for its contributions, is that administrators get caught up in being cutting edge. Modernizing is valuable and oftentimes necessary, but innovating for innovation’s sake can be disastrous. Such was the case for Georgia Southern straying from the option, a lesson the Eagles have had to learn twice in recent years.

The first time came in the latter 2000s, when the triple option that won national championships under Russell and Johnson was scrapped for “modern” schemes. Brian VanGorder’s brutal, single season at the helm in Statesboro kicked off with the journeyman coach taking a shot at the option.

His introductory comment about ushering in “the 21st century” and appearing in promotional material with VanGorder declaring, “There Is No Option” tempted the Football Gods. They responded giving the Eagles a dismal 3-8 season, a low the program did not match for 11 years (more to come on that in a bit).

Gridiron karma perhaps not entirely paid, Paul Johnson’s final season featured Georgia Tech brutalizing VanGorder’s woeful Louisville defense in a 66-31 beatdown. The Yellow Jackets rushed for 542 yards and attempted just two passes.

The decimation of Louisville highlighted the eighth winning season of Johnson’s tenure at Georgia Tech; not bad for a program defined by an outdated offense. Still, GT administrators appear set on moving away from the option, looking to the NFL for Johnson’s successor.

Meanwhile, a branch from Johnson’s own coaching tree is winning big with the option offense, not far from Georgia Tech’s footprint.

Brian Bohannon

Brian Bohannon spent 15 years as an assistant on Paul Johnson’s staffs at Georgia Tech, Navy, and first, Georgia Southern. GSU may have exited the FCS ranks, but its legacy in the subdivision remained in tact when a former Eagles assistant launched a fledgling Kennesaw State program.

The Atlanta-area university introduced Bohannon as its first head coach in 2013. Bohannon and his staff spent the next two years prepping for a 2015 debut, and the Owls hit the FCS scene with a 6-5 inaugural campaign.

One game over .500 is the worst it’s been for Kennesaw State in four seasons under Bohannon. The Owls went 8-3 in 2016, and this year, claimed their second straight Big South Conference championship.

Kennesaw State hosts South Dakota State on Saturday in the FCS Playoffs, the program’s second trip to the quarterfinals.

It’s quizzical, if not ironic, that Georgia Tech athletic department leaders are rumored to be looking across the country at the San Diego ehhhhh Los Angeles Chargers and Ken Whisenhunt for their next head coach, when just 22 miles away, a former Yellow Jacket assistant has built a national championship contender from nothing.

Bohannon’s name not coming up in association with the Georgia Tech opening speaks to the stigma that seemingly still lingers around the option offense. Chasing a new trend doesn’t always achieve intended results, though, a difficult lesson some have to learn multiple times.

Chad Lunsford, Willie Fritz and Bob DeBesse

For a program with a history indelibly tied to the option, Georgia Southern has tried to stray from the scheme twice in the 21st century. A decade after the VanGorder debacle, Georgia Southern replaced Willie Fritz and his modified version of the option with well-traveled Tyson Summers.

Summers returned to Statesboro in 2016, 10 years after working as an assistant on VanGorder’s staff (seriously). The Eagles operated out of shotgun in Summers’ tenure, a deviation from the Flexbone formation for which the program was known.

Now, Fritz used shotgun in his time at Georgia Southern with success, but Fritz also integrated triple-option concepts. It’s an approach that worked for him at Sam Houston State, where the Bearkats became national championship contenders running a hybrid offense. Fritz’s offensive coordinator there was Bob DeBesse, an option guru who elevated previously moribund New Mexico to bowl games in his time there.

Fritz continues his innovative wrinkle on the triple option at Tulane, which came calling for the coach just weeks after The Open Man’s initial option offense feature ran in 2015. The Green Wave are bound for their first bowl game since 2013, averaging 208.25 rushing yards per.

But Georgia Southern’s use of the shotgun under Summers fared dramatically worse than Fritz’s implementation of it. VanGorder’s historically anemic 3-8 mark was challenged in 2017 when the Eagles started 0-6 under Summers, hitting rock-bottom with a winless vs. winless loss to UMass.

Summers was summarily fired, and former Fritz assistant Chad Lunsford was promoted.

Named the permanent replacement last offseason, one of Lunsford’s first orders of business? Bringing Bob DeBesse back to Statesboro.

Georgia Southern contended for the Sun Belt Conference’s East division title this past season. The Eagles went 9-3, peaking with a rout of then-ranked Appalachian State on an ESPN telecast.

Georgia Southern rolls into its Camellia Bowl showdown with Eastern Michigan ranked ninth in the nation at 260.83 rushing yards per game.

The Eagles’ immediate success when reimplementing an option offense says there’s still a place for the system in college football — even against the sport’s best.

Jeff Monken

The first time Georgia Southern learned the error of its ways this century, it turned to Jeff Monken. Monken became the Eagles head coach in 2010, instantly restoring the program to FCS prominence with a 10-win campaign.

Georgia Southern concluded its historic time in I-AA/FCS with seasons of 11-3 and 10-4, and back-to-back trips to the national semifinals.

By the time Georgia Southern began its transition to FBS, Monken left for the opening at Army. The service academy ran an option offense in years prior, similar to rival Navy. However, the Black Knights did not approach a level anywhere near that of their counterparts in Annapolis.

In fact, from 1997 through 2015, Army appeared in just one bowl game. But Monken now has the Black Knights rolling, bound for their third postseason in as many years with this month’s Armed Forces Bowl.

Army aims to extend another streak this Saturday, pursuing a third straight win over Navy. A Black Knights victory would mark their 10th on the 2018 campaign, but one of their losses might say the most positive of the program’s state under Monken.

Army took College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma to overtime in September. The Black Knights frustrated the Sooners defense, rushing for 339 yards and dominating possession for 44:14.

“Give Army a ton of credit – those guys played hard, they executed,” Lincoln Riley said in his postgame press conference. “As well as they ran the option, they didn’t put the ball on the ground one time the entire day, which is hard to do with all they’re doing. Give those guys credit. They’re really well-coached and played the whole football game.”

Should the Black Knights close out with a pair of wins to remain and finish in the Top 25, it would be their first time doing so since 1996. Army could realistically finish with its best final ranking since closing out at No. 3 in 1958, the last season of the program’s glory years that spanned World War II and lasted into the ’50s.

Beyond GSU

While Georgia Southern holds a crucial stake in the continued existence of the triple option around Div. I football, other examples of the offense’s value exist around the landscape.

Aforementioned Kennesaw State survived its FCS Playoffs opening-round matchup against a fellow option team, Wofford. The Terriers are fixtures in the subdivision’s postseason, operating with a flexbone overseen by 29-year veteran coordinator, Wade Lang.

Opponents may know what to expect of Wofford with such a well-tenured coordinator at the controls, but that doesn’t mean they have much hope of slowing it down. Wofford averaged 311.7 rushing yards per game this season.

Wofford’s continued success is one of numerous examples of the option flourishing in FCS. Sometimes dismissed among FBS pundits as a gimmick, the offense can still win championships at the FCS level in this era. James Madison did exactly that two years ago.

The Dukes’ national championship sparked coach Mike Houston’s meteoric rise. In just a few short years, Houston went from coaching in a Div. II championship game at Lenoir-Rhyne; beating an SEC opponent at The Citadel; winning an FCS championship at James Madison.

In 2019, Houston takes his approach to the FBS level at East Carolina.

East Carolina swooped in late, with Conference USA fledgling program Charlotte rumored to have been pursuinig Houston for its coaching vacancy. Houston’s arrival in the American Athletic Conference means the league likely has three option-based teams next season: Navy, Tulane, and now, East Carolina.

It’s not necessarily a revival, but the option continues to hum along. If The Open Man checks back in another three years, I suspect the offense will continue to be delivering results.