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Run-first Jackets improving through the air

Georgia Tech's Tony Zenon smiles as he races down the sideline for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against Middle Tennessee during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (AP Photo/The Daily News Journal, Aaron Thompson)

Georgia Tech's Tony Zenon smiles as he races down the sideline for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against Middle Tennessee during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (AP Photo/The Daily News Journal, Aaron Thompson)

ATLANTA -- Maybe it's a little early to call this offense Air Johnson.

Even so, Georgia Tech is sure showing a lot more life in the passing game.

Through two weeks, the Yellow Jackets have thrown for more yards -- 579 -- than they did in the first six games of 2010. The run-oriented option offense has worked just like coach Paul Johnson draws it up, creating some huge openings in the passing game for quarterback Tevin Washington and his receivers.

Washington has completed nearly 62 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Stephen Hill has a staggering 43.9-yard average on his seven catches, which include three TDs, giving the junior more yards than he had all of last season.

"What we do lends itself to big plays. It's not just 3 yards and a cloud of dust," Johnson said Tuesday. "Our receivers get put in space in one-on-one situations a lot. We have some favorable matchups at receiver. That's what happened on a couple of those big plays."

Make no mistake, the Yellow Jackets (2-0) still prefer to run the ball most of the time. Of their 139 offensive plays, only 26 (less than one in five) have been passes. The key has been getting the most out of those infrequent throws, something they didn't do very well a year ago.

Four of Georgia Tech's passing scores have gone for at least 71 yards.

Johnson credits the offensive line with doing a better job protecting the quarterback, which can become an afterthought on a team that runs so much.

"We've got more time to throw. We're staying in front of people a little bit longer," Johnson said. "We tweaked the protection a little bit, but it's not that much different. To this point, we've just done a better job. The competition level is going to increase, so we'll see if that continues."

Indeed, the schedule is about to get a whole lot tougher. After easy wins over FCS school Western Carolina and FBS lightweight Middle Tennessee State, the Yellow Jackets host Kansas (2-0) on Saturday, looking for a bit of redemption against a team that handed them one of their ugliest losses a year ago.

Georgia Tech was coming off an Atlantic Coast Conference championship (since vacated by the NCAA for rules violations) and ranked in the Top 25 when it traveled to Lawrence last year. The Jayhawks would win only three games all year, but one was a 28-25 upset of the Yellow Jackets.

"I remember the end of the game, them taking the knee in the victory formation," Johnson said bitterly. "I remember that."

Hill was one of the biggest disappointments in what would become a 6-7 season. Touted as someone who possessed many of the same physical skills as former Georgia Tech star Calvin Johnson -- fast, tall and much bigger than the defensive backs he was going against -- Hill managed only 15 catches for 291 yards.

His biggest improvement, according to Johnson, has been off the field.

"He grew up and matured over the summer," the coach said. "He got his personal life in order. He committed to playing. Stephen always had a lot of ability. There was a lot put on him a year ago, and I don't know that he was ready for it. He didn't start out well, and he kind of nose-dived from there. His confidence is up now. Hopefully he will keep working hard and continue to produce like he has."

Johnson knows Georgia Tech is unlikely to keep up an average of 289.5 yards passing, or that Washington will remain the ACC's most efficient passer.

But with defenses forced to concentrate mainly on the run, there's no doubt the Yellow Jackets will have some chances to do major damage on those occasional plays when they do drop back to pass.

"We're making too big a deal about the passing part of it," Johnson said. "We're not throwing it any more than we did last year. We're just completing some. It's a lot more fun when you're completing 'em."