March 20, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word –
If anyone was surprised that Justin Thomas ran so fast at Georgia Tech’s Pro Day, where dozens of professional football scouts, coaches and front-office personnel gathered to watch nine former Yellow Jacket football players audition for jobs at football’s next level, Paul Johnson wasn’t among them.
Tech’s head coach wasn’t stunned in the least when scouts hand-timed his former quarterback at between 4.33 and 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which would’ve stacked up quite nicely a few weeks ago at the NFL’s Scouting Combine if Thomas had been invited and run that way there.
Only three players clocked better than a 4.33 at the combine, where Washington wide receiver John Ross set a record at 4.22. Minnesota cornerback Jalen Myrick turned a 4.28 and Ohio State wide receiver Curtis Samuel a 4.31.
Those are flat-out flying times and as Thomas worked out in quarterback, wide receiver, defensive back and return drills, he showed he can haul, too.
“I think that people are here to look at him not only as a quarterback, but maybe an inside receiver, a defensive back and he’s going to test really well,” Johnson said before last Friday’s festivities in the John and Mary Brock Football Facility. “He’s a great athlete. He’s going to run good times and has got good quickness.”
Thomas was joined by defensive linemen Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon, linebacker P.J. Davis, center Freddie Burden, punter Ryan Rodwell and kicker Harrison Butker, although some did not do all drills as they’re still mending from postseason surgeries. Former Jackets Tyler Marcordes, a linebacker, and Emmanuel Dieke, a defensive end, also worked out in hopes of earning another shot at making an NFL team.
Although Thomas was very successful as a three-year starter at quarterback for the Jackets, he wasn’t invited to the combine, ostensibly because he played in an option offense, passed infrequently and, at 5-11, 185 pounds, lacks the size more common among NFL QBs. He was a late addition to the Senior Bowl in January – as a defensive back.
It’s impossible to know what his NFL future will be, as teams are considering him at several positions.
His last reception was especially impressive, a one-handed grab of a deep ball thrown by former Tech quarterback and current graduate assistant Tevin Washington.
“I felt good in all of [the drills]. I did what they asked me to do,” he said. “I felt good running, going up through the training. This was actually my first full time in the 40, getting a time down in the 40. Just try to go 100 percent. It’s a job interview. You do the best you can.”
Burden and Gamble were limited as they recover from post-season surgeries. They spoke with several team officials and participated in non-running drills.
“I wish I was out here competing,” Burden explained. “I talked to a few teams today and some teams before today. Mainly, they ask about my rehab. I was talking to a guy today who said they like my length in the middle. They like my athleticism.”
Davis led Tech in tackles in two of his three seasons as a starter, yet like Thomas, his size – he’s about 5-9, 230 pounds – falls beneath NFL standards for linebackers. He went through drills, including some that cast him as a fullback. The Falcons, who lost starting fullback Patrick DiMarco in free agency, were among the teams looking on.
Davis bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times, which at the combine would’ve ranked second among running backs and among linebackers.
Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine did 30 reps and Michigan linebacker Ben Gedeon 27.
“I was shooting for 30, but . . . I definitely felt like I showed them that I was more athletic than they expected,” he said. “I have to battle my size. Me being a linebacker at 5-9 . . . if it’s for me, it’s going to be for me. They wanted to see me over there in the fullback drills. I told them I’ll do anything, any position . . .
“I’m open to anything that will get me on a team. I played running back in high school. I feel like I can excel.”
Although none of the Tech players who worked out last Friday are widely considered locks to be drafted, some may be, particularly Butker. But Johnson won’t be surprised if they all earn shots, even if they go undrafted and then sign free-agent contracts with NFL teams.
“I think P.J. is just a guy who wants a chance,” the coach said. “He’s undersized but you’re not going to find a kid with a bigger heart or a tougher kid. I think if he gets into camp, he’ll be a hard guy to cut because he goes 100 miles per hour, he competes and it’s important to him. He wants to be good.
“Harrison is the all-time leading scorer in Georgia Tech history. That kind of says it all. Maybe a better person than football player. Certainly, whoever ends up getting him in camp will be glad that he did. I think Patrick will probably play inside in the NFL. Possibly he could be a defensive end. You know, Patrick played this whole season  on one leg.”
As these Jackets have continued to work out after the season with the help of Tech strength and conditioning coach John Sisk and his staff, they have in some cases worked on additional skills. Thomas has been fielding punts and kickoffs for a while, for example, and running pass routes.
The idea of him as an NFL slot receiver is not hard to imagine.
New England’s extraordinary slot man, Julian Edelman, was a college quarterback at Kent State. At 5-10, 200 pounds, he’s similar in size to Thomas.
He wasn’t invited to the 2009 NFL Combine and at his Pro Day workout for scouts that year, he ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds. Edelman got the attention of NFL scouts, though, with his athleticism and a time of 3.91 seconds in the short shuttle drill. The fastest time at the combine that year was 3.96.
New England drafted him in the seventh round and in his first NFL preseason game, he returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown. He’s also played a little bit of defensive back in the NFL.
“I think Justin can play a lot of places,” Johnson said. “I personally think he could play quarterback if given the opportunity. He’s not the prototype size. He’s got a strong arm, he understands the game. If not there, I think he’s probably an inside receiver, but could he be a corner? Possibly. He’s a good enough athlete.”
Thomas is up for anything and he’s lining up additional workouts and interviews.
“A few teams, I’ll be back up here with the Falcons and their workouts,” he said. “[Quarterback is] my first mindset. At the end of the day, all my doors are open . . . I’m going to go into my opportunity and make the most of my opportunity.”
Johnson’s hoping every one of his former players gets a shot.
“If you’re a good enough player, you’re going to make it in the league,” he said. “You’re nervous for them because you know that from the time they were growing up, this was one of their goals and aspirations. It’s like I tell our guys all the time, Pro Day is important, but it’s what you lay on film that is most important.”