Tech’s Thomas carrying Melton under his wing

ATLANTA — At receiver, he was the go-to player last year.

Any time a passing play called for a clutch first down reception, he was Georgia Tech’s man for the job.

Working his magic by hauling in a rare bomb, or cutting off a route to snag a short yardage catch, he was the player opposing defenses knew they had to keep an eye on.

Demaryius Thomas — a former West Laurens standout known more affectionately by his teammates as “Bay-Bay” — was Georgia Tech’s hidden offensive weapon last season. Providing a change of pace from bruising rusher Jonathan Dwyer, Thomas’ playmaking ability at wideout forced teams to not only gameplan for Georgia Tech’s unique option offense, but to also prepare for one of the ACC’s best receivers.

“It was hard,” Thomas said of facing tough defenses, “I would get frustrated a lot when I would try to get open off their coverages, but that didn’t matter, I just had to keep playing and go through it.”

Ranking among the conference’s top eight receivers in receiving average, Thomas recorded 52.2 receiving yards per game. The extra attention, some would argue, was well warranted.

But this fall, some of that interest in the 6-foot-3 native Middle Georgian may be eased as the Yellow Jackets start implementing a passing package in their offense. Trying to counterbalance their well-publicized and well-regarded rushing attack, this new portion of their offense is expected to give the Yellow Jackets even more offensive complexity, while continuing to perplex opposing teams.

That added flexibility is becoming a reality with the emergence of sophomore receiver Tyler Melton this spring. A talented wideout from Texas, Melton is fully healthy from a knee injury last season, and has excelled this spring to the point that head coach Paul Johnson believes the receiver position can be a major component to his offense.

“Any time you can have two guys who are weapons, you can go either way,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “We might not have to go as much to the one side.”

Catching just five passes in limited action last season, Melton, then a true freshman, had very few opportunities to prove just how lethal a weapon he could be. This year, however, he hopes to capitalize on every ball thrown his way during practices, so that when the games arrive in September, he will be able to fully showcase his skills.

“I approach this spring as a tool to get better,” Melton said. “Bay-Bay’s and my philosophy is that you have to work hard off the field in order to be the best on the field and that’s what we’re both striving for right now.”

After a week-and-a-half of practices, it would appear both receivers have taken that adage to heart, as they have begun spring practice as the clear standouts at the position.

But as they stand out, to the casual onlooker, it might also seem like the two are in intense competition, battling one other for the No. 1 spot. Whenever Thomas makes a tough catch look easy, Melton makes an even tougher catch look even easier. And back-and-forth the action goes.

But if Georgia Tech fans are looking for hatred, jealousy and anger between the two, there is none to be found. While competitive, theirs is a relationship full of cooperation and mutual understanding. One player’s hard work rubs off right off on the other.

“You know, he has more experience than me, so of course I’m going to look up to him,” Melton said of Thomas. “And right now, he’s the best. I’m chasing him. I’m sprinting for him.”

While flattered by Melton’s respect, Thomas — who is entering his junior season — sees their connection a little differently. To him, theirs is a friendship that sometimes isn’t seen among players competing for the same position.

Dorm buddies, Melton and Thomas live just down the hall from each other and spend each free moment searching for space to work on routes and catching passes.

“I can say we mentor each other,” Thomas said. “We workout when we don’t have practice. We try to get better at catching and running routes, we try to get better in the passing drills.”

One of the more popular drills they work on is throwing tennis balls to one another, and trying to catch them both one- and two-handed.

“Right now, it’s just about being consistent; coming out and making catches every day,” Melton said. “The hard catches are the easy catches, and everything else in between is routine — it’s where you don’t want to see any drops at all.”

Given Melton’s understanding of the role both receivers share, it’s possible the drops could be held to a bare minimum this season.

“This past year, Bay-Bay was the primary option in the passing game, so he’s really going to be getting a lot of attention coming into the season, but on the whole, I know have to step up on the backhand side now,” Melton said. “I’m going to be getting a lot of one-on-one man-to-man opportunities, and I have to take advantage of as many of those as I can.”