When Paul Johnson was at Georgia Southern, he was used to a fair amount of longevity at the quarterback position.
In his five seasons with the Eagles, from 1997-2001, he had two quarterbacks, Greg Hill and J.R. Revere.
In his six seasons at Navy, Johnson had much more shuffling to do, and the Midshipmen still had five straight winning seasons, thanks in part to basically the offensive system being in place upon his arrival.
At both stops, quarterbacks came to campus knowing what the position called for and prepared to execute it.
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That wasn’t the case when he arrived at Georgia Tech, but Johnson might have the stability at the position he hasn’t really had since leading the Eagles to a 62-10 mark. He’ll have “his guy” running his offense for, barring the unforeseen or unfortunate, three full seasons.
Justin Thomas was a sophomore quarterback who led the Yellow Jackets to an attention-getting season highlighted by big wins, an ACC division title and bowl win over an SEC team. And he’s back.
“The latter half of the season, he kept getting better and better,” Johnson said Tuesday at the Peach State Pigskin Preview at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. “Just experience, just playing. The more you play, the better you get.”
Thomas’s ability to run the offense as smoothly as he did with little experience gives Johnson a chance to expand what pressure the Yellow Jackets’ offense can put on a defense, a luxury he hasn’t had much of in Atlanta.
Josh Nesbitt was a three-year starter, but he was recruited to Georgia Tech by Johnson’s predecessor, Chan Gailey. Nesbitt was a physical quarterback who didn’t come to The Flats to run an option offense.
The first year was one of learning and transition, and the Yellow Jackets went 9-4 with Nesbitt passing for 808 yards and rushing for 693.
The learning curve was all but mastered a year later, with Nesbitt accounting for 2,738 yards in total offense and 38 touchdowns. He ran better than he threw, completing 43.9 and 46.3 percent of his passes those first two seasons.
His senior season was marred a season-ending broken arm suffered while making a tackle at Virginia Tech. That put Tevin Washington in charge for the rest of that season and the next two. He left with a 15-12 record as the full-time two-year starter, with better passing numbers than Nesbitt and respectable running stats in fewer games.
So Johnson really had a ready-for-the-offense Nesbitt for one season, and it was a good one.
That indoctrination season was last year for Thomas, a much less physical presence than Nesbitt who still averaged 5.5 yards a carry, completed 50.9 percent of his passes, and had a superb touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17-5.
Nesbitt’s best year in that area was his big year, as a junior, with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Washington’s was eight touchdowns and four interceptions as a senior.
One year is only one year, but it sure excited the ticketholders who saw Johnson’s often-discussed offense executed rather well, and by a youngster who was named was named as the All-ACC quarterback this week by Phil Steele’s preseason magazine.
There’ll be no secrets for the Yellow Jackets offense and which player will have a target on his jersey, one that will be a little fuller this fall.
“He played in the Orange Bowl game at 172 (pounds),” Johnson said. “He’s 190 now. He’s getting bigger.”
That’s still about 15 pounds lighter than Washington and 35 lighter than Nesbitt. But Thomas’ knowledge and experience should help keep him healthy.
Thomas’ mental approach is something that clearly delights Johnson, who has dealt with quarterbacks not sold on the system.
“I think that he’s a good leader,” Johnson said. “He embraces what we try to do rather than trying to change it.”
Using last year as an average, Thomas would leave Georgia Tech with nearly 2,900 rushing yards, almost 4,800 passing yards, more than 50 touchdown passes and less than 20 interceptions.
Of course, the most important stats from last year weren’t yards and all that. The Yellow Jackets beat Georgia in Athens, won the ACC Coastal Division and lost by two points to Florida State in the conference title game and popped Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
All with a sophomore quarterback.
Johnson is loathe to toss out hyperbole about pretty much anything, and rating Thomas was no exception.
“I would never single anybody out, to say they’re the best,” he said. “Certainly he was a really good player for us. I think his best football is still in front of him.”