ATLANTA — When head coach Paul Johnson arrived to Georgia Tech almost two winters ago, Demaryius Thomas had a chance to give up on the Yellow Jackets and leave.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver heard the critics clamoring in his ears about how rush-heavy Johnson’s new option offense would be, and how few his opportunities at catching the football would be.
He could have listened to them. He could have followed their advice. But he didn’t.
Instead, believing there was something special about the plans the new coach had for the young team on The Flats, Thomas trudged on and kept with the program. As a result, the things he hears now are dramatically different.
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His decision, it would seem, was the right one.
As the Yellow Jackets ride a wave of high expectations and even higher hopes at the start of this season, Thomas is drawing his own praise.
Named to the preseason All-ACC team, the former West Laurens standout is hearing his being mentioned along with the best wide outs in the country. But even as the hype comes in, Thomas said, it just goes right back out.
“Really man, I just let it go in and let it go out. I don’t even listen to it half the time,” Thomas said. “I just come out and work hard every day and just get better and help the team get better for the season.”
After helping lead the Yellow Jackets to a largely unexpected 9-4 finish and a Chick-fil-A Bowl berth, Thomas has started drawing national attention at his position, surprising those same pundits who claimed he wouldn’t be passed the ball last fall at all.
In fact, he went on to finish 2008 with 39 receptions, just three catches shy of ranking in the top 10 in the conference. Thomas also had 627 receiving yards, good enough to nab the No. 8 spot among ACC receivers.
For a pass-catcher who plays in an offense whose first priority is to run, those numbers don’t seem too bad.
At least, that’s what the people at NFL draft prediction site nfldraftscout.com seem to believe. They have the junior rated as the ninth-best receiver out of a potential 311 who could be drafted in the next two years. After this season, that ranking could rise.
The main reason Thomas believes he’ll be better than he was a year ago is because of the work he and his quarterbacks accomplished this summer.
“I feel like this year we had much more time to work on the quarterback-receiver (connections) than we did a year ago,” Thomas said. “Mainly, we basically were just getting ready for the option (in 2008). But now, we’ve been working on the passing and I think we’re all on the same page. Hopefully it’ll be a better year (passing).”
Last December before the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Johnson hinted at the possibility of expanding his playbook slightly to include a more run-n-shoot style of passing offense. Those added offensive “wrinkles,” as he calls them, should force defenses to think that much harder about whether the Yellow Jackets will run or pass in a given situation.
While Thomas believes the extra time this summer with quarterbacks Josh Nesbitt, Jaybo Shaw and Tevin Washington would be the biggest reason for him having a potentially better season, his receivers coach Buzz Preston believes something else could enhance Thomas’ on-field performance.
“For me, for every player, it’s the same: consistency. Because consistency allows you to make big plays,” Preston said. “If you’re consistent in every phase of your game, then you’re going to be a big-play player, if you have that ability. Now, if you don’t have that ability and you’re consistent, at least you’re going to be consistent enough to help us win.”
Against Duke last fall, Thomas was the epitome of a big-play player, when he enjoyed a nine-catch, 230-yard receiving performance. Just 14 yards shy of setting a single-game school record, the outing was enough to prove that an air attack could thrive in Johnson’s offense.
So what is the consistency Preston hopes to see from Thomas and other receivers this fall? He wants each player, Thomas included, to recognize how good they can be at every phase of their respective games. For some of them, that may mean that they shouldn’t expect spectacular catches every day. Instead, they should hope to excel in other areas.
“The game is not me going out and doing my own thing to be dominant, it’s being consistent in my assignments, and consistent in my execution of my techniques to put me in place to have that big play when it comes around,” Preston said.
Thomas hopes that leads to flawless execution when he is personally called upon.
“Everybody knows it’s a running offense, but once we get a chance to throw the ball, we have to try to capitalize and get a completion,” Thomas said.