When quarterback Justin Thomas and center Freddie Burden finished their playing careers at Georgia Tech, the team lost more than just a pair of outstanding players. The Yellow Jackets also lost two of the team’s most influential leaders, which leaves a big void that needs to be filled.
Thomas, the little guy, and Burden, the big guy, commanded the respect of their teammates. They helped provide encouragement and an occasional kick in the pants when needed. It remains to be seen who will step into that vacuum.
“We’ll find out in the next four or five weeks,” head coach Paul Johnson said. “You can teach leadership skills, but you can’t force people to be leaders, not good ones. The good ones are leaders; they rise to the top and guys follow them.”
Johnson said Thomas was a leader from the moment he stepped on the field, even though he was by nature a quiet individual.
“Justin Thomas was a leader, and he never said a word,” Johnson said. “From the time he came here, he had that ‘it’ factor, and guys just followed him. I never went to him and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be the leader.’ ”
In fact, Johnson said it’s the team and not the coaching staff who determines who will carry the leadership role.
“I could go in there and say, ‘I want you and you to be the leaders,’ and the team may have a whole different idea,” Johnson said.
Leadership was one of the topics discussed by some of the players at the team’s preseason media gathering last week. Among the most commonly mentioned names were defensive backs Corey Griffin and Lawrence Austin, defensive linemen Antonio Simmons and KeShun Freeman, receiver Ricky Jeune and lineman Andrew Marshall.
The key is to ensure the team doesn’t follow players who create problems or break the rules.
“If you’ve got guys who are problems off the field, and they’re always causing distractions, and they’re the leaders, you’ve usually got problems,” Johnson said. “But if the other guys are the leaders, the guys doing everything the right way, and guys follow them, then it’s usually pretty good. I’ve seen it both ways.”
There were 104 players who participated in drills the first day. The practice lasted 24 periods and nearly 2 1/2 hours, with players wearing helmets, jerseys and shorts for the non-contact practice.
“It was good to get back out there,” Johnson said. “We had a good warm day to get back in the flow. Overall, it’s like you think the first day will be, get an idea of the pace. There were a lot of big eyes. I don’t think a lot of those guys had gone at that pace and at that speed before. I think they approached it with the right attitude and got through it all right.”
The offense and defense both produced big plays in the first practice session. Safety A.J. Gray jumped the route on a pass, intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall later threw a pass over tight coverage to redshirt freshman and former Westside standout Stephen Dolphus for a touchdown.