Shaw is the Hokies’ scout-team quarterback this week, a walk-on freshman from Rocky Mount, Va., generously listed at 6-feet, 170 pounds. His father, Pete, is an assistant coach at Division III Ferrum College, a team that runs a triple-option offense very similar to the scheme of Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson. Shaw’s coach at Franklin County High, Chris Jones, had previously won two consecutive Virginia state titles running the triple option.
Before this week, he hadn’t taken a hit during game week preparation. That’s not the case now that he’s being called upon to impersonate Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington.
“This week I’ve been banged up quite a bit,” Shaw said. “I’m used to it. My dad being a football coach, I’ve been taught to be tough my whole life.”
There’s one of Shaw on every college football team in America, but he takes on an exponentially greater importance for whatever team faces Georgia Tech each week. As Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster knows well by now, the teams that slow down the Yellow Jackets are the ones that can simulate Johnson’s offense the best in practice.
While Johnson seemed to take great delight in saying he had an offensive game plan of 10 plays against Virginia earlier this season (that didn’t turn out so well for him as the Cavaliers won, 24-21), Foster says it’s more complicated than that.
He talked Sunday evening of the Hokies’ one loss to Johnson two years ago, when Virginia Tech held the Yellow Jackets to two first downs before Josh Nesbitt connected on a 51-yard pass and then Jonathon Dwyer scored to take a 7-3 lead just before halftime.
Still, Nesbitt had only 25 rushing yards in the first half. Dwyer had just six yards. Virginia Tech had stopped the dive plays and neutralized the outside runs.
But then Johnson went to the jet sweep in the second half. Nesbitt finished with 156 rushing yards, Dwyer had 89 and Johnson came away with his only victory over Virginia Tech since coming to Atlanta in 2008.
“He does a good job of attacking you how you’re trying to defend him,” Foster said this week. “Each year everybody that’s played him [well], you add a little wrinkle from our end of it. But where he’s good at it is he’s seen that wrinkle somewhere before.”
This year, Georgia Tech’s attack is diverse as ever. Six players have gained between 200 and 700 rushing yards this year, with quarterback Tevin Washington leading the way at 636 yards. Sophomore B-back David Sims gets the lion’s share of the carries on those dive plays and has gained 564 yards. Junior A-back Orwin Smith has big-play capabilities off the pitch and averages more than 11 yards per carry.
But Foster seems most concerned with Washington, especially because he’s a much more accurate passer than Nesbitt. Though the Yellow Jackets are averaging 12 pass attempts per game like they have the previous two seasons, Washington’s 11.8 yards per attempt is a significant improvement on Nesbitt’s 6.4 mark a year ago. That doesn’t mix well for a Virginia Tech secondary that has been susceptible to the big play having given up 37 pass plays of more than 20 yards this season.
“He can put his foot down and go north and south, and he runs their offense very, very well,” Foster said of Washington, who made his debut in Virginia Tech’s win over Georgia Tech last year when Nesbitt broke his arm making a tackle on an interception by Davon Morgan. “Nesbitt was a guy you wanted him to throw the football and this guy, I don’t know if that’s the case all the time.”
How do you stop all these varied looks? Well, Foster would only concede that, “If it was simple, everybody would be shutting it down.”
The main problem Virginia Tech has run into this week is that cornerback Kyle Fuller is the only player among the Hokies’ top nine tacklers from last year’s 28-21 win over Georgia Tech that will take the field Thursday night. It’s hard to prepare for something you’ve barely encountered before, especially when it comes to the smash-mouth, cut-blocking approach of the Yellow Jackets.
“I think you definitely have to be a lot more physical, taking on blockers and some of the tackles may be in closer spaces so you have to put your body in there,” Fuller said.
Added defensive line coach Charley Wiles: “It’s one of those games where really it’s a fight. I’ll tell you this about Georgia Tech: They’re tough, and that’s for sure. I don’t know how talented their offensive line is, but their toughness level, I mean those guys are 100 percent believers in what they do and they’re tough. You’ve got to match their toughness and that’s our biggest challenge: being physical play after play.”
So it can get “repetitious, kind of boring” at practice these past few days, safety Eddie Whitley said, moments after the defense closed Sunday’s session by hauling poor Shaw to the ground down after down. But Whitley, who didn’t play in last year’s game because of a foot injury, noted how the Hokies must stick to their assignments “because they could do the same thing three, four times in a row and then just boom, pass the ball.”
Shaw said Foster began practicing for this Georgia Tech game while the team was still preparing for its 14-10 win over Duke. And despite the bumps and bruises he’s picked up, Shaw doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
“These are the elite athletes,” he said, smiling. “In my opinion, and I go against these guys every day, we have the best defense in the country. I know a lot of people would disagree, but honestly with the injuries we’ve had, we’ve just rose to the occasion.”