The question made Pat Gamble laugh out loud ... and perhaps tell a little white lie.
Has quarterback Justin Thomas ever made you miss?
Gamble, the burly, bearded defensive tackle who is expected to be a leader on the Georgia Tech defense this fall, chuckled at the thought.
“He ain’t made me miss, but I’ve seen him make a couple guys miss,” he said.
Thomas has been making defenders miss him — even in practice — since he became the starting quarterback in 2014.
Now, as the Yellow Jackets try to rebound from last year’s 3-9 season, Thomas will need to be more astute and trickier than ever when it comes to running head coach Paul Johnson’s option attack. Thomas will once again be the focal point of the offense, with which he’s as familiar as any quarterback Johnson has had in his previous eight seasons at Georgia Tech.
“It’s been second nature for about three years now,” Thomas said. “The more you do it, the easier it gets. The more the guys know it around you, it also gets even easier.”
The 2015 season wasn’t pleasant for Thomas, especially when contrasted with his breakout 2014 campaign. Everything was terrific in 2014; Thomas ran the record-setting offense and was named MVP of the Orange Bowl.
Thomas wasn’t exactly the same in 2015. He ran for half the yardage he had the previous year. His passing stats dropped dramatically. He took plenty of physical abuse and was beat up enough at the end of the year that he was held together by tape and gauze.
“Probably what happened was two years ago he was surrounded by some pretty good players,” Johnson said. “We lost a lot of talent, and then when we got other guys injured. He was surrounded by guys who hadn’t played. Ricky Jeune was our leading wide receiver, and he had played hardly any. Then we started getting hurt at A-back and all of a sudden we had all these freshmen and guys who hadn’t played.”
Johnson hopes a healthy team and an improved offensive line will enable Thomas to better resemble the player who made a lot of people miss in 2014.
“This year there will be more familiarity with the skill guys around him,” Johnson said. “We’re still going to be young, but they’ve got some experience. (Justin is) only going to be as good as the guys around him. As gifted an athlete as he is and as good a player as he is, he can’t do it by himself. He’s got to have some help.”
Thomas probably tried to shoulder too much of the burden last year. He showed frustration when mistakes were made and sat by himself on the end of the bench. He wasn’t sulking. He was just upset with himself. Johnson often refers to Thomas and his competitive nature — much like Johnson’s.
“He’s clearly the leader of the team,” Johnson said. “They valued his ability, but he’s a quiet guy. If you’re in the stands, you’re not going to see him getting after people. That doesn’t mean he’s not talking to them. Sometimes he’s so hard on himself. He’s got to work on his body language and his demeanor.”
It will be important for Thomas to keep that in mind as he goes through his final season.
“He gets frustrated if he makes a bad play, but it doesn’t do him any good, if he makes a bad play for him to go sit on the bench and put a towel over his head,” Johnson said. “That’s just him. Two years ago when we had all those seniors and all those good players, that wasn’t his role. He could go over and do that. They’d go get him. Now he’s the senior, and he’s got to be that guy. I think he’s grown into it.”
Perhaps there will be fewer moments of distress for Thomas this season. The offensive line is healthy and in better shape. The groups at A-back and B-back are deeper and healthy. The depth and experience at wide receiver is much improved.
“Offensively, we kind of hurt ourselves a lot (last year) … you know, turnovers, missed assignments,” Thomas said. “This year we need to make sure we take care of those things, make sure everybody knows what’s going on, just trying to stay ahead of the game.”