Thomas has Tech believing

Jackets' junior quarterback is hoping to re-create some of last season's magic.

By Steve Hummer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



There Georgia Tech was last November, pinned between the privet hedges of its enemy, contemplating all-too-familiar defeat.

This time, the onus dropped like an anvil on the Yellow Jackets’ young quarterback. Justin Thomas had lost his grip on both the ball and a rare chance to beat Georgia. His second fumble of the day gave the Bulldogs the ball back with 2:41 to play. They used all but 18 seconds to score a go-ahead touchdown.

Back at the firehouse just outside Montgomery, Ala., Blake Thomas told the rest of the brigade that, oh, no, the Yellow Jackets weren’t finished yet.

As Georgia drove, he promised: “If we get the ball one more time, we win the game.”

Scott Cunningham / Getty Images

Scott Cunningham / Getty Images

In the seats in Athens, the ones Milton Thomas escaped to for a better view, the one amid all the Bulldog people, the two guys next to him started angling for the exit after the fumble. You better sit back down, he told them. This isn’t over yet. They humored Milton, and resettled after betting him a drink that Tech was finished.

Milton’s still waiting for his drink.

Two years before in this same stadium, when his son was a redshirted freshman, no more a factor than the traffic on Broad Street, Milton discovered this rivalry. As the Bulldogs were building on a 42-10 rout, a few fans around him began rubbing his face in it. Finally, fed up and moved to an unusual outburst, he sputtered to one of his tormentors: “When my son starts, we’ll beat you every year — starting with the next time we come back here.”

Nobody in this family loses easily.

Perhaps you know the rest. Milton’s son, bottled up for so much of that rivalry game last year, snapped off a 21-yard run that put Tech in position for a long tying field goal. Then, continuing with the chaotic theme of the day, it won wildly in overtime. A father’s prophecy had taken its first step toward truth.

Thomas broke through last season as one of those rare quarterbacks that almost makes his coach, Paul Johnson, crack a smile. With the combination of speed, instincts and just enough arm, he gave Tech’s option a major turbo boost.

A prototype, perhaps, for this eight-yards-and-a-cloud-of-confusion attack? Close enough.

“If you drew up the prototypical guy, maybe he’d be a little bigger — if you’re giving me what I want,” Johnson said wryly. “But I’m glad he’s on our team. He’s pretty good.”

Thomas, a junior, is the first of Johnson’s quarterbacks at Tech to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season and pass for better than 1,700 yards. The best part was the efficiency with which he operated: a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18-to-6; a team takeaway-to-turnover ratio of 29-to-18.

Thomas is entering his junior year at Georgia Tech.

And it was his first season with his unrestricted driver’s license to run this offense. His steering is expected to improve with experience.

When Thomas moved into the starting role — after predecessor Vad Lee transferred to James Madison — Tech gained a player who embraced his position like a good brother does his siblings. Interactions with public and press may have all the pizzazz of unbuttered toast. But around his teammates, Thomas is right at home. And in his circle there is little more important than home.

A visit to the big white house just outside Montgomery, in the town of Prattville, verifies that. Family is inescapable. Sit a spell in the living room and you are surrounded by no fewer than 40 photos of Justin, his mother, father, brother, two sisters and their children. And that’s not counting the two albums on the coffee table. Upstairs is the wall of trophies they all accumulated. Justin’s Orange Bowl MVP trophy gets a special display downstairs in the front parlor.

“Last year was a special team. This year we have to try to mimic what we did last year, but not harp on it.”

- Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech quarterback

Jibed by teammates for how often he scoots south on I-85 for the three-hour drive home, Justin typically spent his last free week in Prattville before the opening of camp. Part of his weight-training program at home included hoisting nieces and nephews from room to room. His first night home was a real wild one, playing cards with his folks. Milton had a list of chores for him, too, including pruning the bushes and spreading pinestraw.

“I wouldn’t change anything. I’m going to stay the same person and stay with the people who were always with me,” Justin said.

From his Cajun mother, Tanya, he learned to love to cook. From his business-minded father, he learned the lessons of self-reliance. And Justin looked no farther than the bedroom down the hall for his athletic role model, glomming onto big brother Blake, six years his senior, and trying to duplicate his playing-field exploits.

Blake, however, is unsure of how much credit to take. The first time he saw his little brother carry a football in a midget game, Justin reversed field five times before finding the end zone. “I never did anything like that,” Blake said.

The only job outside football Justin has ever had — until his internship this summer at an executive headhunting firm — was working for his family’s cleaning service, JT Commercial. When just knee high, he’d tag along on weekends and summer days and empty trash from offices around town. Vacuuming became his specialty, but that came with complications.

“He was just so thorough, he’d vacuum everything. Whatever he does, he does it to an extreme. When we’d go with him, we took two vacuums or we’d be there all day,” his father said.

Being devout Jehovah’s Witnesses is the other great unifying force behind the Thomas family. And, yes, those frequent trips home also include mornings going door to door serving that faith’s command to knock and preach its gospel. Justin is becoming just a bit more recognizable on such forays.

Setting the perspective that rules the family, Milton said, “Sports is recreation. God is real.”

This also is by birth an Alabama Crimson Tide family. A telling clue resides in their youngest son’s full name: Justin Michael Bryant Thomas. Yes, it’s a nod to that Bryant, the Bear one.

Justin committed to Alabama, but baled for Tech when he decided his unshakable goal of playing quarterback was in better hands with Tech and Johnson’s offense.

When he de-committed from Bama, the rivers rose and the earth trembled. Milton’s largest client at the time was a particularly fevered Alabama loyalist. “If you can’t control your household, I don’t know if you can control this account,” he told Milton. Sure enough, the account went away, a blow that took years to recover from, Milton said. The business is much healthier now, he said, with designs on spreading as far north as Atlanta.

The decision paid great dividends for Tech last season, as Thomas grew into the point man for a team that even the stony Johnson came to love. As Thomas saw it, “Last year was a special team. This year we have to try to mimic what we did last year, but not harp on it.”

This time, Thomas leads an offense that lost four of its top five rushers and its two leading receivers from a year ago. He’s ever more important, as he digs in now as the experienced hand, lifting and instructing those who come behind him.

His coach seems very comfortable with how that is going to play out.

“He wants to do it, that’s 100 percent of it. You get a guy who wants to do it then everybody else feeds off him. No belly-aching, no complaining,” Johnson said. “He embraces what we do and he wants to do it. Our guys respect him; they have confidence that he’s going to make plays for them.

“When you do that, you want to play for a guy. Those guys up front don’t want to get him hit. So they’re going to play a little better. The backs want to block; they know if they give him a crease, they got a chance for a great play. Or if you give him time to throw the ball they’re confident he’s going to make plays. They know he’s a tough guy, so they respect that.”

After all, every family rallies around its most devoted member.

Other notable Tech QBs

Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Kim King, 1963-67


Tech quarterback Kim King is carried off the field. (Georgia Tech Athletics)


A three-year starter under coach Bobby Dodd, “The Young Lefthander,” as he was called by Tech radio man Al Ciraldo, was best known for leading the Yellow Jackets to a win over 8th-ranked Tennessee in ’66 and for guiding them to berths in the Gator and Orange bowls.

When he graduated, he was Tech’s all-time leading passer (2,763 yards, 21 touchdowns), since surpassed as the game evolved.

A successful commercial real estate developer, King remained closely aligned with Tech as a benefactor and radio analyst. King died in 2004. The Tech locker room is named for him.

John Dewberry, 1983-85


Georgia Tech quarterback John Dewberry gets a hug from coach Bill Curry following win over Georgia in Athens. (AP)


From start to finish, no Tech quarterback ever had a more tumultuous career. To begin, Dewberry made the almost unthinkable move of transferring from Georgia to arch rival Tech. At the close, he was suspended from what would have been his final college game, the All-American Bowl, by Bill Curry.

In between, Dewberry built a reputation as an accomplished author of the surprise victory. Going in unranked, he twice beat a ranked Georgia team. While leading the ACC in total offense in 1984, he also pulled off upsets of No. 13 Clemson and No. 19 Alabama.

King would take Dewberry under his wing after his graduation, and today Dewberry Capital, based in Atlanta, is a major urban developer. Claiming to own more undeveloped property on Peachtree Street “than anyone else in the world,” he envisions reshaping the skyline of Midtown.

Shawn Jones, 1989-92


Quarterback Shawn Jones leads Tech in 45-21 win over Nebraska in the 1991 Citrus Bowl. (Scott Halleran / Getty Images)


His sophomore season was the charmed one, with the unbeaten Jackets claiming a share of the ’90 national championship and Jones being named Citrus Bowl MVP at the end. It was the season he prevailed in the classic 41-38 victory over top-ranked Virginia. That also was the year Jones put up four rushing touchdowns against Georgia.

Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen knew he had something special when as a freshman, Jones was named ACC Player of the Year.

Jones finished with 8,718 passing yards (53 touchdowns) and 896 yards on the ground (20 touchdowns).

A recent Thomasville Times-Enterprise story placed Jones as splitting time between his hometown and Atlanta while training young athletes throughout Georgia.

Joe Hamilton, 1996-99


Joe Hamilton remains Tech's leader in touchdowns with 65. (Johnny Crawford/AJC File)


Hamilton became the standard for Tech quarterbacks past and future.

By career’s end, he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne. That was as close as any Jacket had gotten to the award since quarterback Billy Lothridge was runner-up to Navy’s Roger Staubach in 1963.

Hamilton still is Tech’s career leader in passing yardage (8,882) and touchdowns (65). He is third all-time in the ACC in total offense (10,640 yards). And sixth all-time in the conference in quarterback efficiency rating.

In his final home game, he threw for four touchdowns and compiled 435 yards of total offense in a 51-48 overtime victory over Georgia.

He is beginning his third year at Tech as a recruiting assistant. Among his duties: coordinating social media and recruits’ on-campus visits.

-- Compiled by Steve Hummer

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH, OFFENSE

Freddie Burden

One of the more underrated elements of Tech’s record-breaking offense last season, he helped fuel the running game by using his quickness at center to fell defensive tackles and to seal off linebackers. Pressure is on the line to perform, as the Jackets do not have a B-back with a single carry in a Yellow Jackets uniform. If B-backs Marcus Allen, Patrick Skov or Marcus Marshall are breaking long gains up the middle, chances are Burden will have made a significant contribution.

Broderick Snoddy

The A-back has come back from a gruesome broken-leg injury that ended his 2014 season prematurely. His healthy return is critical, as Snoddy is the sole player at that position with significant experience. With the speed and power that he was beginning to show at the time of his injury — namely his three-touchdown game against Pittsburgh — Snoddy likely will be a featured element in the Tech offense. The Jackets will need to find one or two complementary A-backs who can clear lanes for him with perimeter blocking.

Justin Thomas

As close to a prototypical quarterback for coach Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense as the coach may ever have, Thomas will be counted on for his playmaking ability in the option and in the passing game. Though defenses undoubtedly will seek to force the ball out of his hands, that will enable Thomas to show his point-guard wizardry in dealing the ball in the option game. Nevertheless, Thomas is a wonder with the ball, a stunning package of quickness, speed and daring. If the Jackets ascend to the heights of 2014 or higher, they’ll do so following Thomas’ lead.

-- Compiled by Ken Sugiura

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH, DEFENSE

P.J. Davis

The linebacker led the Jackets in tackles last season with 119. Now, he’s playing with a clearer understanding of defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s scheme and not playing outside of the defensive framework in the manner of, in Roof’s words, as a “cowboy.” The combination of his football instincts, his powerful hitting and his developing clarity of his role in the defense bodes well. As long as he stays healthy, it will be a surprise if he doesn’t lead the team in tackles. He mirrors Thomas’ place on defense. If the Jackets have made the expected strides on defense, Davis likely will have had a lot to do with it.

KeShun Freeman

The defensive end relied on his high-speed drive to become a freshman All-American last season. This year, Freeman has added strength, weight and the benefit of a year’s experience. Expect to see Freeman, an aspiring anesthesiologist, come frequently tearing around the edge in pursuit of quarterbacks in the pocket. The Jackets’ defense will need him to frequently succeed in order to relieve pressure on the secondary. A bump from his team-best 4.5 sacks is not an unreasonable aspiration.

D.J. White

The cornerback contributed two of the signature plays of the 2014 season, his chase and strip of Pittsburgh running back James Conner and his game-ending interception of Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason. That alone may warrant White’s inclusion as a player to watch. That said, White’s unrelenting effort and playmaking knack are two more reasons. Further, coaches have challenged White to improve his game study habits, which previously were hardly lacking, to become even more of a playmaking factor. Like three other starters in the secondary, though, he’ll be gone after this season.

-- Compiled by Ken Sugiura

THREE KEY PLAYERS LOST

Shaquille Mason

When Tech needed critical yards last season, more often than not the Jackets ran behind the All-American guard to acquire them. Further, his leadership pushed the line to its highest level of play under Johnson. He deserves no small share of credit for the Jackets’ slew of records set last season. Despite being undersized for the NFL level, Mason became the first Tech offensive lineman recruited by Johnson to get drafted and is competing for a starting job with New England.

Quayshawn Nealy

A four-year starter, Nealy was a turnover savant, intercepting eight passes, recovering six fumbles and scoring four defensive touchdowns. With his inside-out knowledge of the scheme, he likewise gave the Jackets stability and leadership on defense and was a deserving All-ACC selection after last season. At linebacker, Tyler Marcordes moves up to pair up with Davis. Marcordes has more size and a more physical style than Nealy, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by Seattle, but he’ll be challenged to match Nealy’s nose for the ball.

DeAndre Smelter

The wide receiver’s absence was felt even before the season ended, as he missed the ACC Championship game and the Orange Bowl after tearing his ACL in the Georgia game. Smelter was Thomas’ go-to outlet, memorably hooking up with him for the must-have fourth-and-15 against Virginia Tech. The magnitude of Smelter’s graduation and departure to the NFL is accented by the losses of receivers Darren Waller and Corey Dennis, and the accompanying dearth of experience among the returning wideouts. Micheal Summers has 17 career catches, Antonio Messick has one and no other Tech receiver has any.

-- Compiled by Ken Sugiura

TWO FRESHMEN TO WATCH

Marcus Marshall

With the competition at B-back open after the graduation of Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Matt Connors, Marshall has been in the mix with Allen and Skov.

Marshall has quickness off the snap and can accelerate through the line, valuable assets to spring the big gains that are so devastating from the position.

Brad Stewart

The last player to be offered a spot in the 2015 signing class may turn out to be among the first to make an impact. The wide receiver has impressed with his ability to track passes in the air and win balls in traffic.

With the depth chart fluid at wide receiver and Tech’s habit of rotating receivers, it would be no surprise for Stewart to play and contribute on special teams and offense.

-- Compiled by Ken Sugiura

THREE STORYLINES FOR THE SEASON

Can Tech get enough from its offensive skill positions?

One possibility for the skill-position starters for the Tech offense in the season opener could include Skov, who has played three seasons at Stanford but none at Tech, A-back Qua Searcy, who should make his career debut in the season opener, and wide receiver Ricky Jeune, who has played 12 games without any catches.

It isn’t to say they’re not potentially star players, only that they and other Jackets backs and receivers will be short on experience. It could mean hesitant reactions, playing slow, misreads and inconsistent execution as Tech advances through the season.

The Jackets do have a savvy quarterback in Thomas (as well as backup Tim Byerly), who can erase mistakes with his speed and his ability to improvise. It’s one reason ball security in the preseason wasn’t bad. They’ll likely improve with game experience, but how much, and how quickly?

Can the Jackets manage a grueling schedule?

Tech could well be a better team than last season. But the schedule, one of the toughest in the country, may mean it won’t necessarily show in the win-loss column. After Alcorn State and Tulane to start, the Jackets go to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are 16-3 at home in coach Brian Kelly’s past three seasons. Three games later is a trip to Clemson, where the Jackets have lost three in a row. Oct. 24, Florida State, the three-time defending ACC champion, will visit. The annual showdown with Georgia looms on Thanksgiving weekend.

That’s four teams in the top 12 of the preseason coaches poll. Four more teams — Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke and North Carolina — weren’t in the Top 25, but received votes. It’s an opportunity for a truly special season, but it will require the Jackets to be at their peak frequently. In a three-week stretch in October, the Jackets could face arguably the ACC’s top quarterback (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson), best running back (Pittsburgh’s James Conner) and two of its best linebackers (Florida State’s Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith) in consecutive weeks.

Will the defense make the anticipated improvement?

With eight returning starters and two more players returning from a season of ineligibility, the pieces are in place. There are potential All-ACC selections across the field. The group is well-versed in, and bought in to, defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s scheme.

But there is a lot of improvement to make. The Jackets finished in the bottom 20 nationally in yards per play (6.3), third-down conversion rate (46.1 percent), completion rate (62.9). The Jackets’ almost inexplicable knack for opportune turnovers saved them repeatedly.

With an aggressive mindset, more depth and playmakers such as Freeman, Davis and White, the Jackets have the look of a unit that could make last year’s defense a distant memory. Whether they do can only be answered over the next four months.

-- Compiled by Ken Sugiura

About the ACC

RETURNING PLAYERS TO WATCH, DEFENSE

Jeremy Cash, safety, Duke

Most are expecting Duke to take a step back this year, even with the softest schedule in the ACC.

But Cash (6-2, 205) makes tons of plays in the Blue Devils’ ball-hawking 4-2-5 scheme. He was the only defensive back last year to make 100 tackles (111), 10 tackles for loss (10.5) and five sacks (5.5).

Can you imagine if Ohio State kept him?

Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Florida State

Would be the Seminoles’ best safety or linebacker, if they moved him there. Jimbo Fisher probably could, and will this season.

The 6-1, 201-pound All-American junior terrorizes quarterbacks in several ways: he’s an excellent cover man, physical, sure tackler and ferocious blitzer.

Kendall Fuller, cornerback, Virginia Tech

One of the nation’s top cover corners, Fuller broke up 15 passes in 2014 to lead the conference and intercepted two. The 6-foot, 196-pound junior is part of a Hokies defense that ranked 14th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

Fuller and his position mates are even more effective because of a dominant front line, featuring tackle Luther Maddy and ends Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem.

Once Fuller leaves for the NFL after this year – all but a guarantee – he’ll be the fourth of the Fuller brothers to play in the league, joining Vincent, Corey and Kyle.

-– Compiled by Matt Porter, The Palm Beach Post

RETURNING PLAYERS TO WATCH, OFFENSE

Jacoby Brissett, quarterback, North Carolina State

He wasn’t always consistent last year, but was one of three quarterbacks in Power Five conferences with at least 2,000 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, 20 passing touchdowns and five-or-fewer interceptions. The others: Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.

The Wolfpack should start fast with an easy nonconference schedule and a host of returning starters, but Brissett has the stuff to produce in big games: he played out of his mind during last year’s near-upset of top-ranked Florida State.

If he puts together a few of those games this year, the Pack will surprise.

James Conner, running back, Pittsburgh

The junior broke Tony Dorsett’s program record for touchdowns (26, third nationally) and was the ACC Player of the Year. Uniquely large at 6-foot-2 and somewhere close to 250 pounds, he bullied defenses all year long.

He’ll get more opportunity with potential All-America receiver Tyler Boyd stretching defenses, and thanks to a favorable schedule – no Florida State or Clemson in ACC crossover games – he’ll have ample opportunity to put up big numbers.

Pitt went 4-4 in the ACC last year, with three losses by five points or less. Conner could put the Panthers on the other side of that ledger this year.

Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Clemson

Possibly the nation’s best quarterback, but is he healthy? The answer will determine the Tigers’ fate.

With Watson, who threw for 1,466 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions on 68 percent passing in an electric eight-game debut, they might not need the extra play-calling magic they used to get from departed coordinator Chad Morris.

But questions persist about the effectiveness of new co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, and more importantly, if Watson’s surgically repaired knee will trouble his sophomore season. If it does, it’ll throw a wrench into Clemson’s hopes.

-– Compiled by Matt Porter, The Palm Beach Post

FRESHMEN TO WATCH

Deon Cain, wide receiver, Clemson

With a nod to the other Tampa-area standouts (FSU freshman George Campbell and Tigers teammate Ray-Ray McCloud), Cain is the freshman receiver who might make the most noise this year.

Listed as the No. 2 receiver in the 2015 class by ESPN, Cain (6-2, 190) brings a natural feel for the position to go with his high-level skill.

McCloud, a running back and wildcat quarterback in high school, has impressed coach Dabo Swinney in preseason drills.

Derwin James, safety, Florida State

People knew James, the No. 1 safety recruit in the nation, was strong. But the Haines City, Fla., native turned heads by posting a video of himself bench-pressing 405 pounds – nearly twice his body weight – during offseason training.

James (6-1, 212) arrived in Tallahassee in January and was one of the breakout stars of the Seminoles’ spring game, recording a pick-six in his debut.

Some analysts peg him as the best safety prospect in years.

Mark Walton, running back, Miami

He might not have the same impact as Duke Johnson, but Walton will get every chance to prove to Al Golden and Co. why he’s their back of the future.

With his solidly built, 5-11, 190-pound frame, Walton brings speed, power and shiftiness and has a knack for catching the ball out of the backfield.

In a backfield looking to replace Johnson’s production, Walton will get plenty of touches.

-– Compiled by Matt Porter, The Palm Beach Post

TEAM MOST LIKELY TO OVERACHIEVE

A combination of low expectations and high talent level means Miami could surprise some of the national prognosticators that peg them as a .500 team.

Supremely gifted quarterback Brad Kaaya, returning for his second season after winning the conference’s rookie of the year award, has taken full control of the locker room.

Though his offensive line is troublesome, he has a slew of capable receivers, running backs and tight ends, plus an improved defense that should keep UM in games, not lose them (as has been the case recent years).

Las Vegas sees the Canes hovering at or below the 6-win mark, but take the over: this won’t be another 6-7 season.

A tough schedule (crossover games against Florida State and Clemson; Nebraska and AAC stalwart Cincinnati) means this probably won’t be a 10-win season, but eight wins is good news for Al Golden, since it means he probably won’t lose his job.

-– Compiled by Matt Porter, The Palm Beach Post

TEAM MOST LIKELY TO UNDERACHIEVE

Defending ACC champs Florida State are ripe for upsets.

To repeat, they’ll have to navigate a schedule that includes the four best ACC teams not wearing garnet and gold – Miami, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Clemson – in a midseason span of 29 days. An improved Florida squad waits in Gainesville at the end of the regular season.

New quarterback Everett Golson was a turnover machine in the second half of last season with Notre Dame, and he’s walking into a situation with four new offensive line starters and a thin front seven on defense.

The receivers and secondary look elite, but Fisher has a tough road. His biggest problem: Golson isn’t Jameis Winston. ACC teams: get your licks in now, while you can.

-– Compiled by Matt Porter, The Palm Beach Post

College football preview

The college football season is upon us.

The 16th-ranked Yellow Jackets open the season at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3, at home against Alcorn State.

Find an expanded look at the college football season in Sunday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

For continuing coverage of Georgia Tech, read Ken Sugiura's blog and follow him on Twitter.

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