During his five years in the Canadian Football League, Mike Kelly was constantly jotting down notes. On napkins, stray pieces of paper, in playbooks, anywhere.
He always knew he would return to coach American football, and he wanted to make sure the ideas he thought would translate well, were documented. Now if Kelly could just figure out one more thing.
"I don't know where I'm going to put that 12th guy," said Kelly, the first-year coach at Valdosta State, which opens at Georgia Southern today at 1 p.m. "We'll figure out something. Maybe we'll disguise him as a referee, or something."
So you see the dilemma faced by first-year Georgia Southern coach Paul Johnson as he prepared his team for the Blazers. Johnson didn't know where to turn for scouting material on Valdosta State, since Kelly has spent the past five seasons as the offensive coordinator for the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
He watched some Valdosta State film from last year, mainly to check out personnel, but didn't bother with any Winnipeg video. The rules, which include 12 players on each side, more than one player in motion and 110-yard fields, were deterrent enough.
"I wasn't going to waste our time because I probably wouldn't have known what I was looking at," Johnson said. "Let's just say this. I figure they're going to air it out. That league certainly favors the passing game, and with the players they have down there, they're going to throw the ball. He certainly wasn't hired to run the ball."
Actually, Kelly had the same problem. After a highly-successful stint as an offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern, Hawaii and Navy, Johnson was hired last November to take over the program he helped turn into a Division I-AA power.
To prepare, Kelly watched film of Navy and Ohio University, where new Georgia Southern offensive coordinator Mike Sewak called the plays last year. And even though Kelly knows something about Johnson's tendencies and his option-oriented offense, well, it's still the first game, meaning a lot of uncertainties exist.
"It's been really different," said Kelly, who was hired to replace Hal Mumme when he jumped to Kentucky. "It's unusual not having some film on a team. It's really going to be like two boxers feeling each other out for couple of rounds. We have ideas of what we think they're going to do, and they probably know a little bit about us, but nobody's for sure."
Under Mumme, Valdosta State became Division II's equivalent of Brigham Young. The Blazers averaged 328.9 yards passing and 38.8 points a game last year in reaching the quarterfinals of the playoffs and quarterback Lance Funderburk was a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II's Heisman equivalent.
Johnson prepared his defense for a myriad of formations, everything from two-back sets to the no-huddle shotgun with four receivers. The different looks are no big deal for defensive tackle Derrick Reeves. Especially since the Eagles have played the likes of Miami, Florida and Marshall the past three years.
"We've been practicing against everything," said Reeves, a Butler High grad. "They've been putting us in the worst possible situations and we've been reacting pretty good. Really though, it's hard to say what they'll run."
Cornerback Lavar Rainey, a Richmond Academy grad, said: "They're liable to throw everything at us. We really don't know what to expect."
Kelly, who last coached in an American football game at San Francisco State in 1991, said he actually plans to tone down the school's offensive reputation. Under Mumme, Blazer quarterbacks often threw as many as 60 or 70 passes in a game.
"Forty seems like a good number to me," Kelly said. "They got a little pass-happy last year. If things are working well, we'll probably throw it 40-45 times and run about 20 times. That's if things are working well. If we're losing, well, things could be different."
Georgia Southern, on the other hand, will run the ball. That's a given.
Johnson helped turned Navy into one of the nation's top option offenses, and the Midshipmen finished fifth in Division I in rushing with 283.6 yards a game in 1996. Combine his know-how with a team that was fourth in rushing in I-AA last year, and this game could quickly become a shootout.
"The last time we played them when I was here (1983), I thought we were in Canada," Johnson said. "They hid a receiver on the sidelines twice. They just snuck him in there. You know the worst part? It worked both times."
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