Football: Offensive guru Johnson finds success at Navy
Chris Hine | Friday, November 2, 2007
Paul Johnson has accomplished a lot in his six seasons as Navy’s coach, and Saturday, Johnson and the Midshipmen have a good chance to do what no Navy team has done since John Kennedy was president – beat Notre Dame.
In 2002, Johnson took over a Navy program that was 1-20 in its previous two seasons. After going 2-10 in Johnson’s first year, Navy went 35-15 the next four seasons, made an appearance in four straight bowl games and defeated traditional rival Army each year under Johnson. Even though his squad will be facing a 1-7 Notre Dame, Johnson said, the Midshipmen aren’t obsessing about snapping Notre Dame’s 43-game win streak.
“I think the media makes a lot bigger deal out of that than we do,” Johnson said by telephone Wednesday. “Everybody knows about it because it’s the first question you’re asked about everything, but other than that, we haven’t even talked about it.”
Johnson spent eight seasons as offensive coordinator at Hawaii before becoming Navy’s offensive coordinator in 1995. Johnson left Navy in 1997 to take over at Division I-AA Georgia Southern. After capturing two national titles in five seasons, Johnson returned to Navy as coach.
His success at Navy has caused his name to come up in connection with Nebraska’s job – should current Nebraska coach Bill Callahan not return next season – but Johnson said the Nebraska rumors have not distracted him or his team.
“It hasn’t been mentioned [by players],” Johnson said. “I think the last three or four years, our guys are kind of numb to that. It happens a lot. That’s a credit to them that it hasn’t been mentioned.”
No matter where he coaches, Johnson’s offenses have always preformed well. Using an option attack, Navy has led the nation in rushing three of the past five seasons and is No. 1 this season with just over 340 yards per game. But, Johnson said, his play calling was not always run-oriented.
“We threw the ball a lot more at Hawaii. I think the offense can be tailored to the personnel a little bit and when we were in Hawaii we threw the ball more because we had some different personnel,” Johnson said. “We line up the same way, ran the same plays, but we just probably majored in throwing a little more. Here, we major in running. There it was more 60/40. Here it’s 80/20.”
Johnson said his teams at Navy have executed his offense well. But he dismissed the notion that his players are easier to coach than at other schools simply because they are in a military academy and are subject to strict regulations during their time in school.
“I think that’s a bit of a misnomer,” Johnson said. “I think it’s just like any other offense. You have to execute with whatever you run. I don’t know that these kids are any different than any other 18, 19 or 20-year-old kids. They’re smarter in math and science and they’re willing to serve their country, but I don’t know if we’re any more disciplined than any of the other teams I’ve had when I coached at different places.”
But Johnson did say coaching at Navy impacts the way he recruits.
“[Recruiting] is hard,” Johnson said. “The [pool is] very small because not only do you have the military requirements, but you have the academic standards and that kind of thing.”
The recruiting restraints are not limited to offense. Johnson implemented a 3-4 personnel scheme on defense due in part because of the type of players he could recruit. Weight standards in the Naval Academy do not allow large defensive-end type players. The 3-4 scheme allows Johnson to recruit lighter athletes while not changing his defense all that much from a traditional 4-3 scheme.
“It’s not a big change,” Johnson said. “Every defense is gap-oriented, and it’s not a big deal. [The 3-4 scheme] enables you to get more linebackers on the field and more linebacker-type bodies. For us, we have a hard time finding defensive linemen. We can’t get big guys. So, we felt like we could get more of the 220-pound guys that can run. And that’s why we went to the 3-4.”
Even though his defense has struggled this season – the Midshipmen are 105th in total defense – Johnson said his team has a chance to win if it plays one if its best games against Notre Dame, which has the lowest-rated offense in the country.
“One of the two is going to have better numbers than they’ve been having, that’s for sure,” Johnson said.