ATLANTA -- The Georgia Tech offense never has been better during head coach Paul Johnson’s seven-year regime than this season. And much of it can be attributed to quarterback Justin Thomas, who has put the “opt” back in option in his first season as the starter.
The Yellow Jackets lead the ACC in nine major offensive categories, including total offense, scoring offense and rushing. At the center of it all is a sophomore who has played with maturity beyond his years.
At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Thomas doesn’t have particularly great size. Compared to other ACC quarterbacks like Florida State’s Jameis Winston (6-4, 230), Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (6-3, 190) or North Carolina’s Marquise Williams (6-2, 220), he’s almost puny.
The competition becomes closer once Thomas starts running with the ball. Thomas was voted the second fastest player on the Georgia Tech team by his teammates, behind only A-back Broderick Snoddy.
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Where Thomas distances himself from others is when he’s asked to make a read and execute the option. Whether handing it off to B-backs Synjyn Days or Zach Laskey on the dive or deciding to keep it himself or pitch it to one the A-backs, Thomas has become an ace at running Georgia Tech’s option attack. He’s the best at it since Joshua Nesbitt helped lead the team to the ACC championship in 2009.
“I think he’s played very well,” Johnson said. “Overall, minus the Duke game where I think he got a little bit dinged and hurt, I think he’s gotten better every game and played well.”
Thomas has been consistently good all season. When asked, he has taken the bulk of the runs. When asked, he has been willing to hand the ball off or pitch it outside. Whatever needs to be done, Thomas has risen to the occasion.
For example, he ran for 165 yards against Virginia Tech when the Hokies chose to deny the pitch to the A-backs, and Georgia Tech won. The next week, he was able to hand off to Laskey 29 times and limit himself to 27 yards in a Georgia Tech win.
Thomas has rushed 153 times for 827 yards and five touchdowns, leaving him 173 yards short of becoming only the second quarterback in program history to reach the 1,000-yard milestone. He already ranks fifth on the all-time rushing list for quarterbacks with 1,061 yards. His 75.2 yards per game ranks him seventh among FBS programs.
“During the offseason, we just decided to get back to the things that had been very successful for us in the past,” Johnson said. “Fortunately for us, Justin Thomas has a great skill set. That’s what we like to do. He’s played very well and distributed the ball very well in the option game.”
He has even shown the ability to effectively throw the ball. Thomas has completed 75-of-145 passes for 1,396 yards and 15 touchdowns. His quarterback rating is 161.22.
This week will be the first start for Thomas against Georgia. He did not play in last year’s 41-34 double-overtime loss to the Bulldogs.
“We don’t throw the ball a lot,” Johnson said. “Most of the time when we do throw it, it’s off play-action, and we’ve been fortunate to hit some big plays. He’s got a couple of pretty good receivers out there that are big targets that, if you throw it close to them, they do a pretty good job of going to get it.”