Paul Johnson is content to cede the Southern inventory of tall, rifle-armed quarterbacks in the classic drop-back mode to other recruiting opponents. What he's looking for in quarterbacks to run his spread-option attack at Georgia Tech is athleticism, nimbleness afoot, football savvy and a true desire to be part of something a little bit different.
In the summer of 2010, he found one excellent target in the person of Vad Lee, the rising senior quarterback of the Hillside High juggernaut in Durham. NC State coveted Lee as well, thinking his skills might complement the tradition established with such flair by Russell Wilson, and Wake Forest believed he was a perfect match to run an offense that at times over coach Jim Grobe's career had been heavy with option, misdirection and a quarterback's ability to run the ball and pitch it at the last second with a linebacker's breath in his nostrils.
Carolina was high on Lee as well. But with verbal commitments already in hand from two quarterbacks, Marquise Williams of Charlotte and Everett Golson of Myrtle Beach, the Tar Heel staff believed the 6-2, 210-pound athlete would be an excellent tailback on offense or safety on defense.
Lee visited Georgia Tech in August that summer, watched practice and saw tape of how Johnson's attack had featured the quarterback over his career at Georgia Southern, Hawaii, Navy and now Tech. Lee was sold and cast his lot with the Yellow Jackets in mid-August. He would go on that fall to lead Hillside to the state 4-A championship with a 16-0 record and be one of 13 seniors to earn scholarships at FBS institutions. An eleventh-hour splash by the Tar Heel staff to sway Lee in their direction after Golson changed his mind for Notre Dame fell on deaf ears.
"After watching it, I knew right then that I wanted to play in that offense," Lee said. "Seeing Joshua Nesbitt run it and visualizing myself in it, I knew I wanted to come to Georgia Tech."
Or maybe it was as simple as the idea that, being a Hornet in high school, it was only natural to continue his career as a Yellow Jacket in college. Today the Tar Heels are still picking the stingers out of their red, swollen skin and applying every remedy known to man-from a paste of tobacco to baking soda to toothpaste.
Lee returned to his home base Saturday and, with some three dozen friends and family members watching in Kenan Stadium, took the field on Tech's third offensive series and spent the rest of the sun-splashed afternoon slicing and dicing the Tar Heel defense. He kept the ball 23 times for 112 yards. He handed off to the B-back and pitched to the A-backs in the proper sequences and at the proper times. And he found open receivers downfield on the few passes he threw, nailing six throws for 169 yards. In all, Lee accounted for three touchdowns running and throwing as Tech lambasted the Tar Heels 68-50 in highest scoring game in Tar Heel and ACC history.
"The kid makes plays," Johnson said after his fourth straight win over the Tar Heels and Tech's 13th in 15 years over Carolina. "He's athletic, he's talented. I'm drained watching him play. He missed some reads. But he fought it, pulled it down and made plays out of it when he did."
Whether it's Nesbitt or Tevin Washington or now Vad Lee in control, Georgia Tech continues its mastery of Carolina's defense.
In 2009 in Atlanta, Tech gained five yards a snap and 406 yards total in a 17-point win.
In 2010 in Chapel Hill, Tech gained 6.7 yards a snap and 448 total in a six-point win.
In 2011 in Atlanta, Tech gained seven yards a snap and 496 total in a seven-point win.
And Saturday back in Chapel Hill, the abysmal totals were 7.4 yards a snap and 588 yards total. Tech punted only once before a meaningless kick in the last minute of the game. Nine of 13 offensive possessions ended in touchdowns. Tech's point output was just one shy of the 69 that Bobby Petrino's Louisville Cardinals hung on the Tar Heels in 2005.
Lee handed off to B-Back David Sims up the middle. He cut around the corners for wide swaths of yards. He pitched to A-Backs Orwin Smith and Robert Godhigh, who made Tar Heels miss on the corners. And on occasion he found Tar Heel defensive backs peeking at the ball and letting receivers run free downfield.
"I don't have the answer for you right now," Larry Fedora said afterward when quizzed about the woeful defensive showing. "We'll have to go back and look at the film and see what was actually happening out there. We used two different fronts throughout the game, and I'm not sure either one of them had much success. We went with the 3-4 and a 4-3 and mixed it up throughout the game and whether they ran it or threw it, we didn't have much success or any consistency."
"It's embarrassing, it makes you angry," senior linebacker Kevin Reddick said. "I've played against it for three years, four years now. I think last year we did okay with it, the other years it kind of gassed us. You just have to be disciplined and that's it. The coaches were telling us all week 'Do your job, do your job,' and guys didn't come out and do that today."
The offense and the kicking game also went astray. QB Bryn Renner lost control of a second-quarter center snap, yielding a fumble to Tech, and a screen pass in the third quarter was aimed too flat and snared by a 6-4 defensive end for Tech. The kickoff cover team surrendered a 100-yard return to open the second half, and Tommy Hibbard made a questionable read on a third-quarter punt, tried to run the ball for a first down and came up a heaping nine yards short.
"I'm not going to put it all on the defense," Fedora said. "Offensively we turned the ball over too much today and gave them some extra possessions. Special teams played poorly. It was very frustrating. Usually special teams have come through for us. It was disappointing. We played poorly as a team today."
Both offenses clicked through the midway point of the third quarter, giving every appearance that the team with the ball last might very well be the winner. Carolina led 29-28 at halftime and again 36-34 after another highlight reel play from Giovani Bernard, who caught a throw-back pass from Renner on the Georgia Tech sideline, made one defender miss, warded off another with his lethal stiff-arm, then rode the blocking escort of Quinshad Davis for a 78-yard touchdown.
But the game soon imploded as Renner threw his pick, Hibbard was stuffed and Lee hit Godhigh on 27 and 32-yard scores. Soon a nip-and-tick game had tilted in Tech's favor, 58-36.
"Tommy has a choice and didn't make a good choice there," Fedora said of the fake punt attempt. "It's not something we would have liked him to do in that situation. That's still my responsibility for giving the guy the option. You have to put that on me, not Tommy."
Lost in the clutter of the defensive debacle was the fact that Bernard gained 78 yards rushing to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year, the first time the Heels have had back-to-back 1,000-yard guys since Natrone Means in 1991-92. Bernard has 1,008 yards, and that's with having missed two early season games with an injury.
"We knew this was going to be a back-and-forth kind of game," Bernard said. "You can't have a hiccup, especially two hiccups. We knew that coming into the game. You can't have two turnovers against a team like Georgia Tech."
The defensive collapse will be parsed to the nth-degree in coming days as the Tar Heels prepare for Thursday night's trip to Virginia for a national TV contest with the suddenly resurgent Cavaliers, who have knocked off N.C. State and Miami in consecutive weeks. Talent? Scheme? Lack of time for Fedora and staff to recruit talent to match the scheme? Combination of all the above?
Without question a unit thin on established, veteran talent entering the season (as outlined in this pre-season treatise), combined with a rash of injuries as the season has evolved has put co-coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch in a difficult spot. Tackle Tim Jackson has been lost since the Duke game. Nickel-package back Terry Shankle was injured versus NC State and was in street clothes Saturday. Safety Sam Smiley left the game in the first quarter and didn't return. Gene Robinson and Darien Rankin needed trainer assistance on Saturday. At times the Tar Heels were using walk-on safety Ryan Mangum and freshmen DBs Kameron Jackson and Alex Dixon in various coverage packages.
Carolina's goal of going 7-0 at home is now off the table and the idea of finishing first in the Coastal Division standings took a blow. Still, every team in the division has at least three losses, as do the Tar Heels, so lots of things can still happen the final two weeks. First up is Virginia, which fortunately does not have Vad Lee running the spread option.
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.