Nov. 3, 2016
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart –
Justin Thomas isn’t one to brag. Georgia Tech’s laid-back, low-key senior quarterback deflects praise as deftly as one of his option pitches at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
That trait held true Saturday after Thomas gained 459 yards of total offense, the third-highest total in school history, in a 38-35 win over Duke. The performance earned him both ACC Offensive Back of the Week honors and the Walter Camp Football Foundation’s National Offensive Player of the Week award. But when told that his 195 rushing yards broke the modern Tech record for rushing yards by a quarterback, held previously by former teammate and current graduate assistant Tevin Washington, “Smoov” abandoned all pretense of modesty.
“This is the first time I’ve heard about it,” Thomas said, smiling. “I’m going to have to give him a hard time.”
Fair enough. But what else accounted for Thomas’ record-setting day against Duke? There had to be something more at work, something deeper than those savvy checks and smart play calls and deflected credit to his teammates. When I interviewed Thomas this week, I decided to (semi-seriously) investigate:
He conserves his energy.
Duke’s defense may vehemently disagree. But Thomas is famous for being slow.
Around the team, Thomas has a well-known reputation for the snail-like pace he keeps on game day. Boarding the bus, getting dressed, coming onto the field for warm-ups – Thomas may like to rush for big yards, but he doesn’t like to get rushed.
Not that he’s apologizing for it.
“Just taking my time so I don’t feel panicked. It’s just something that’s happened over the years,” Thomas explained, the words coming out in a similarly unhurried Alabama drawl.
Evidently he saves that energy for game time. And with his stat line on Saturday, his teammates probably didn’t mind.
He heeds his doctor’s advice.
Thomas said he felt good during warm-ups, but he didn’t have a hunch that a big game was ahead of him. Georgia Tech team physician Dr. John Xerogeanes sensed differently.
“Before we came out I saw `Dr. X’ and he was like, `I feel a big day from you.'” Thomas recalled.
Doctor’s orders. Thomas’ 99.7 ESPN Total QBR (on a scale of 100) was the highest in the Football Bowl Subdivision this year. Afterwards, when Thomas ducked back inside the Georgia Tech locker room, he spotted Dr. Xerogeanes again.
“He kind of gave me that head nod, like `I told you so,'” he said.
His experience breaking tackles dates back a long way.
Those busted tackles and canny juke moves Thomas made against Duke? He learned from an early age how to stay on his feet against bigger, stronger opponents. Growing up in Prattville, Ala., Thomas said he and his brother, Blake, five years his senior, used to dress up in full pads and go out into their backyard to play games of one-on-one.
He had good choice of quarterback role models.
Thomas told me he owned two replica football jerseys as a kid. One was of Brett Favre. The other was of Michael Vick.
Apparently he had a fondness for freewheeling improv artists who could sling it into tight spaces in Atlanta. His plays against Duke showed trace elements of both.
The offseason skill he worked on most was trust.
During the offseason, Thomas said he wanted to improve his composure and cool in the pocket. Too often, he admitted, he bailed on a play or rushed a throw during the Yellow Jackets’ 3-9 season in 2015. The improvement was clear on his two fourth-quarter runs, a 46-yard sprint on the game-winning drive followed by a 50-yard scramble to help ice the game. In both cases, Thomas didn’t force a pass or break off too early, allowing Duke’s defenders to pursue him before they were spread out.
Thomas said plenty of factors have gone into his improved timing.
“Truthfully, trusting the guys up front, knowing that they’re going to protect. Keeping my eyes downfield as long as possible until I know the clock in my head is going off, and not being too distracted in the pocket and looking to run before the play develops. I’ve tried to focus on that more and, as of right now, it’s working out pretty well,” he said.
It worked out in breathtaking fashion against the Blue Devils. For now, the only memento Thomas has from his record-setting day is a nasty, wallet-sized scrape on his left calf, opened on the last (and least flashy) play of the game. And the only record he truly cares about is the won-loss one. Thomas and the 5-3 Yellow Jackets can become bowl-eligible Saturday when they head to Chapel Hill to face No. 18/17 North Carolina at Kenan Stadium (12:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network).
One thing is for certain: Thomas will take his sweet time getting onto the field. And before kickoff, someone may want to check with Dr. Xerogeanes just in case.