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Monday Musings: Comparing Quarterbacks in the Johnson Era

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In which I remind everyone that Vad Lee did in fact play for a season.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Kentucky vs Georgia Tech Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve reached the end of the Johnson era of Georgia Tech football, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at all the quarterbacks under Coach Johnson and see if any meaningful comparisons can be made. Under Johnson and the spread option offense, the quarterback is obviously the focal point and general of the unit. As such, I think the successes and failures of the team over the years have been strongly impacted by QB play. This isn’t really meant to slander or praise any particular quarterback, instead I just want to explore some statistics and showcase them up against team performance. Let’s get started.

First off, here are the rules. I’m only doing this for the main starters; sorry Tobias Oliver and Tim Byerly. Also, I am only counting games in which these players were the actual starters. This becomes slightly hairy given that I only have access to Google-able statistics information, but I’ve done my best to make it as accurate as possible. I’ve chosen to split the statistics into three main categories: player rushing, player passing, and overall team performance. For overall team performance I’ve compiled team yards and points for games that each of these players have started.

Johnson Era Quarterbacks

Name Years Included Games Started Total Carries Carries/Game Total Rushing Yards Rushing Yards/Game Yards/Carry Total Rushing TDs Rushing TDs/Game Rushing Carries/TD Total Passing Attempts Passing Attempts/Game Total Completions Completions/Game Completion % Total Passing Yards Passing Yards/Game Yards/Completion Yards/Attempt Total Passing TDs Passing TDs/Game Passing Attempts/TD Passing Completions/TD Total Interceptions Interceptions/Game Total Offensive Yards Total Offensive Yards/Game Total TDs Total TDs/Game Total Team Yards while QB Total Team Yards/Game while QB Share of Yardage Production Share of Offensive Attempts Total Team Points while QB Total Team Points/Game Total Wins Winning %
Name Years Included Games Started Total Carries Carries/Game Total Rushing Yards Rushing Yards/Game Yards/Carry Total Rushing TDs Rushing TDs/Game Rushing Carries/TD Total Passing Attempts Passing Attempts/Game Total Completions Completions/Game Completion % Total Passing Yards Passing Yards/Game Yards/Completion Yards/Attempt Total Passing TDs Passing TDs/Game Passing Attempts/TD Passing Completions/TD Total Interceptions Interceptions/Game Total Offensive Yards Total Offensive Yards/Game Total TDs Total TDs/Game Total Team Yards while QB Total Team Yards/Game while QB Share of Yardage Production Share of Offensive Attempts Total Team Points while QB Total Team Points/Game Total Wins Winning %
TaQuon Marshall 2017, 2018 23 463 20.13 2118 92.09 4.57 28 1.22 16.54 225 9.78 91 3.96 40.44% 1827 79.43 20.08 8.12 15 0.65 15.00 6.07 9 0.39 3945 171.52 43 1.87 9,157.00 398.13 43.08% 44.27% 697 30.30 11 47.83%
Justin Thomas 2014, 2015, 2016 38 471 12.39 2175 57.24 4.62 20 0.53 23.55 515 13.55 250 6.58 48.54% 4617 121.50 18.47 8.97 39 1.03 13.21 6.41 16 0.42 6792 178.74 59 1.55 16,240.60 427.38 41.82% 38.86% 1248 32.84 23 60.53%
Vad Lee 2013 13 182 14.00 513 39.46 2.82 8 0.62 22.75 180 13.85 82 6.31 45.56% 1561 120.08 19.04 8.67 11 0.85 16.36 7.45 10 0.77 2074 159.54 19 1.46 5,591.30 430.10 37.09% 39.50% 456 35.08 7 53.85%
Tevin Washington 2010 (8 games), 2011, 2012 31 513 16.55 2091 67.45 4.08 38 1.23 13.50 334 10.77 171 5.52 51.20% 3207 103.45 18.75 9.60 21 0.68 15.90 8.14 14 0.45 5298 170.90 59 1.90 13,790.80 444.86 38.42% 33.90% 997 32.16 16 51.61%
Josh Nesbitt 2008, 2009, 2010 (9 games) 34 617 18.15 2467 72.56 4.00 35 1.03 17.63 390 11.47 168 4.94 43.08% 3183 93.62 18.95 8.16 19 0.56 20.53 8.84 14 0.41 5650 166.18 54 1.59 14,416.70 424.02 39.19% 40.72% 1054 31.00 25 73.53%
Sorry for how many columns this has

Initial Reactions

Justin Thomas: pocket passer

But really this actually kinda shocked me. I don’t think any of us have ever thought of JT as a particularly strong passer. Sure he was fine, but nothing special. Yet somehow when it was all said and done this man finished with 39 total passing touchdowns, averaging one per game. What’s crazy is that he wasn’t really even given a ton more passing opportunities; he only got two more passing attempts on average per game than the other QBs here.

Josh Nesbitt wasn’t amazing, but boy did he win

None of Nesbitt’s stats jump out at you. He was alright running the ball, but his passing stats were some of the worst, especially in regards to TDs. Still, he maintained a career 73.53% winning percentage, by far the best.

Vad Lee was as bad as we remember

I think Vad is probably everyone’s least favorite Tech QB, and the stats seem to think so as well. 39 rushing yards per game is by far the worst, and his rushing scoring rate was also terrible. What’s more interesting to me though is that his passing stats are pretty middle-of-the-road. I always think of him as the passing QB of the group because that was touted as his strength. As it turns out, he was actually pretty mediocre passing despite being given the most attempts per game.

Josh Nesbitt

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Full disclosure: I wasn’t a Tech fan while Nesbitt was playing, so I can’t offer much anecdotal discussion. But good lord this man won games. I can see why the fanbase looks back on him so fondly. Still though, nothing about him blows me away from a stats perspective. High carries per game, darn-near exactly the middle in every rushing category, and pretty obviously bottom of the barrel passing stats doesn’t scream generational quarterback, but I guess it just goes to show that winning really is the most important thing. No one comes close to his 73.5% winning percentage.

How did this dude win so much with such mediocre performance? [checks notes] ohhhhhh Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyers production with Nesbitt was 1400 yards and 12 TDs in 2008 and 1400 yards and 14 TDs in 2009. Yeeesh. Oh and in 2010 Anthony Allen went for 1300 and seven TDs. No other quarterback on this list had a BB come even close to that kind of output. Since 2010, only 2017 KirVonte Benson has broken 1000 yards. At the risk of upsetting his fans, I think Nesbitt was just a very safe game-managing quarterback.

Tevin Washington

Clemson v Georgia Tech
H E R O S H O T
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I might be making this up, but I think at one point PJ said that Tevin was the quarterback who ran his offense the most to his liking. The numbers could help you make that argument. 4.0 yards/carry is pretty pedestrian, but scoring 1.23 rushing touchdowns per game is the real highlight. Tevin was a scoring machine, finding the end zone once every 13 carries, a rate convincingly faster than any other quarterback. In the passing game he’s the only QB on this list to have above a 50% completion rate at 51.2%. Interestingly though, he was given the least attempts per game besides TaQuon. Similarly to his other yardage stats, his total yards per game of 171 is pretty median but 1.9 touchdowns per game is well above everyone else but Quon.

I don’t think I would have guessed that Tevin’s teams had the highest yards per game at 444, but he did get to play with David Sims and Orwin Smith. I don’t remember Tevin as being particularly fun to watch, but he sure did run the offense smoothly.

Vad Lee

Georgia Tech v Clemson
man i’ve really blocked this season from my memory

This will surprise literally no one, but Vad Lee is pretty clearly the worst QB Johnson has had. Well, worst for this offense I guess. 39 rushing yards/game on 2.8 yards/carry is abysmal for an option quarterback, and in fact he is the only QB on this list under 4 yards/carry for his career. His passing stats were markedly better, averaging 120 yards/game and maintaining a middle-of-the-road 45% completion rate. He also got close to average a passing TD per game. This isn’t a huge shocker: Vad was always more of a passing talent than anything else, and watching the 2013 season you could see that he wasn’t comfortable in the offense. Still, he didn’t exactly blow everyone away with his arm. Even as the passing-focused QB he held a pretty high interception rate of 0.77 per game, a number that is much higher than anyone else.

Team-wise, Vad actually helmed a very strong offense with his teams averaged 35 points and 430 yards per game. Digging deeper, you can see that it was a strong team effort throughout the season. Outside of Vad, the top three rushers gained 2100 yards and scored 25 rushing touchdowns. Compare that to 2017 when the top three rushers outside of TaQuon went for 1500 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Still, I don’t think anyone looks back particularly fondly on the 2013 season.

Justin Thomas

Capital One Orange Bowl - Mississippi State v Georgia Tech
I wanted so bad to link the video of him juking the absolute life out of that linebacker in this game, but i’ve done that many times before
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Like I said above, JT’s passing stats really surprised me. 48%, 121.5 yards/game, just over one touchdown per game, and at least 1300 passing yards in each of his three seasons as a starter. About the only knock you could make on him as a passer is his high rate of INTs at 0.42 per game. Qualitatively, I think he tried to force the ball a lot, especially in pressure situations. We saw a fair number of interception on 3rd and 15 or when he was scrambling around for his life. Still I think his high production elsewhere in the passing game made up for that overall.

JT was fairly consistent, but it’s obvious that 2014 was by far his best season; the numbers confirm just how special he was that year. 1700 passing yards, 1000 rushing yards, and 26 total touchdowns is no small task in an offense that loves to share the ball. What’s more, he didn’t do it by dominating carries; JT carried or passed on about 27 plays/game out of the 71 plays/game the team ran. That’s 38% of offensive attempts giving him 42% of the team’s offensive production. Compare that to 2017 TaQuon who was 48% of attempts for 48% of production.

I honestly didn’t believe that he only had 20 rushing touchdowns as a starter; I probably would’ve guessed around 40. In general, his total rushing stats aren’t that stellar compared to the others. It seems odd that he actually had the second worst yards/game, best yards/carry, and worst carries/TD. I think this shows him as a highly effective runner, but one that wasn’t given as many carries as the other QBs (12.4 per game compared to an average of 17.2 for the other four). This is probably due to him always having a stellar BB (or two) to share carries with. He also played at the height of Johnson’s tendency to put in the backup QB on goal-line situations (Tim Byerly and Matthew Jordan combined for 16 TDs across Thomas’s three seasons).

All in all, JT was a deadly effective option quarterback. Averaging nearly 180 yards and 1.5 TDs per game, he finished winning 60.5% of his games even though the worst season in recent history (If you replace 2015 with just a 6-6 season, he would be at 68%).

TaQuon Marshall

Georgia Tech v Pittsburgh
this looks kinda like the mr crabs meme
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I think most people are interested in this one right now. The thing that jumps out to me about Quon is his share of attempts. 48% of offensive attempts in 2017 and 40% in 2018. Rushing-wise, he played in 15 less games than JT but only had eight less total carries. That’s wild. Over the course of his two seasons Quon averaged a hair over 20 carries/game, two more than the next highest (Nesbitt) and five more than the average of the other four QBs. This increase in carries is evident in his outlier 92 rushing yards/game (20 yards clear of the next highest) but much more standard 4.57 yards/carry. 1.22 rushing TDs/game seems awesome, but think about this: five of his 28 total rushing touchdowns came in the Tennessee game. Take out that game and he drops to one TD per game.

Passing was certainly not TaQuon’s strongest skill, and it shows in his stats. The bottom of all five QBs, he only completed 40% of his passes for just 79 yards/game. To be fair, he was given about four fewer attempts per game than Justin Thomas. The one shining piece of his passing game is his touchdown rate. Of all QBs, he has the best at about six completions per touchdown. He also had the lowest interception rate, but I think this has a lot to do with his lessened attempts.

The team stats are where TaQuon’s legacy really suffers with the lowest yards/game, points/game, and winning percentage. He’s the only quarterback on this list to have under 400 yards/game (his teams were also 26 yards/game behind the next lowest). It confirms what I think a lot of us have been thinking anecdotally: Quon was a highly talented player who just didn’t run the offense that well.

An Attempt at a Ranking

Okay let’s try to upset some people. I’m gonna frame this around answering the following question:

If you were forming a Johnson offense dream team, who would you want at QB?

With that in mind, here’s my ranking:

  1. Justin Thomas. 2015 is a big drain, but I think JT was the most talented “system guy” of the bunch. Individually, he was dynamic and electrifying. Incredible agility and acceleration, strong vision, and unmatched speed made him an absolute nightmare for defenses. He also was a highly effective field general for the option, often making the smart pitch or right move when needed. He was the leader for two of the best teams under Johnson, and the only QB to get multiple wins over UGA. He’s got the stats and he’s got the memorable performances.
  2. Tevin Washington. He wasn’t particularly exciting to watch, but he ran the offense very well and scored at a high clip.
  3. Josh Nesbitt. I think he’s very similar to Tevin, but just doesn’t have quite the statistical resume.
  4. TaQuon Marshall. I want Quon on the field at all times, but I want him as an A-back.
  5. Vad Lee. I think we can all agree on this one.

What do y’all think?