Sept. 2, 2015
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
It’s going to be hot around Bobby Dodd Stadium in the hours leading up to Georgia Tech’s 2015 season-opener Thursday night against Alcorn State.
Making things hotter is the perceived heat of the national spotlight that is on the 17th-ranked Yellow Jackets, who have cracked the preseason top 25 for the third time in the Paul Johnson era (the first time since 2012) and been picked by many to win the Coastal Division and get back to the ACC Championship Game for a second straight year — something historic even for this already history-laden program — and the third time in four years.
That spotlight is shining brightest on redshirt junior quarterback Justin Thomas, who was a preseason pick for the prestigious Maxwell Award, awarded to the nation’s top player and the Davey O’Brien Award, given to the nation’s top quarterback. Yet, there may not be anyone cooler on Grant Field.
If there is one thing Thomas has shown it’s that he stays cool when things get hottest. The past is the past, be it last year or preseason. He’s focused on what’s ahead.
“That’s last year’s team,” said Thomas, who set the school’s single-record for yards by a quarterback (1,086), while completing 96 of 187 passes (51.3 percent) with 18 touchdowns vs. six interceptions, good for a 153.9 QB rating. “This is a new team, different guys out there. We’re 0-0 right now. We’re going to go out there and play each game and just build off of each week and each win we get.”
Cool and confident. That’s Justin Thomas. It was signature in the way he handled himself last year in leading the Jackets to their second 11-win season in the Paul Johnson Era. He’s earned his place as the unquestioned leader and has been firmly embraced by his teammates.
“I think the biggest thing for him Justin is they respect his ability and his competitiveness,” said Johnson, in his Monday morning press conference. “He’s not a big talker as you guys know. He does not always have a lot to say. He just kind of goes about his business and I think they respect him for that. They also respect and know that he’s a tough kid. So they like playing for him. It certainly helps when they want to play for you.”
Thomas’ demeanor and sense of perspective should help him avoid the potential missteps of media attention. Recruiting Assistant Joe Hamilton knows that road and how distracting that much attention can be, having lived through it in 1999, when he was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and won the O’Brien Award.
Hamilton isn’t concerned about Thomas.
“I don’t see this hindering his play at all. I don’t think the expectations are too much for him to handle,” Hamilton said. “I do not think he’ll be reading any press clippings and think he is better than he is. I think he’ll steadily get better each and every game and each and every rep. That’s the type of guy he is. He cares about his team, he takes his role on this football team and his job very seriously. He just does a very, very good job of being Justin Thomas and not letting the accolades or anything on the outside hinder him there.”
“Understandably, we have a different target on our back but our goals haven’t changed,” he added. “What Justin has done is put us in a position, with his being a solid quarterback that we can try our best to attain all those goals.”
Hamilton pointed to Thomas’ ability to rebound from his lowest point of 2014. That came October 11 at Bobby Dodd, when the No. 22/23 Jackets, having just cracked the top 25, lost 31-25 to Duke. Tech uncharacteristically turned the ball over three times, with Thomas throwing a pair of picks, including one in the red zone. It was his only game where he threw at least 10 times but for fewer than 100 yards. Thomas watched the fourth quarter as backup Tim Byerly forged a comeback.
Afterward there was no head-hanging.
“His demeanor didn’t change, his leadership character didn’t change,” Hamilton recalled. “He’s always an even-keel guy. He just goes about his business in a workmanlike fashion.”
What did change was Thomas’ efficiency. He threw three interceptions over the final eight games, never more than one in a game, and stood tallest during the most trying of circumstances — i.e. the third-quarter fumble at the goal line that Georgia returned 99 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. His final drive of regulation to send the game to overtime was the stuff of legend.
But all that is all in the past. Thomas has put 2014 behind him and while he won’t dwell on last season’s strong finish he does expect the same high level of play with which he finished 2014 to be his starting point when kicking off 2015.
“Just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Just going out there and working as hard as I can,” he said. “I’m just going out there playing, going to practice, or whatever it is, doing it to the best of my ability. If I feel like we can do something differently with the guys on the outside I tell them. I communicate with them. Just getting on the same page is really the main part of that.”
Thomas’ ability to pick his spots is makes when him even more effective when he chooses to speak.
“He’s an outstanding quarterback, very humble, great leadership skills,” said Hamilton. “He doesn’t say much but when he has something to say everybody tunes in and they’re really attentive to what he’s saying.”
Hamilton is enjoying watching Thomas’ growth, admitting that while he’s there on an “as-needed” basis to mentor him, those occasions are less and less frequent.
“Justin’s handled himself so well,” he said. “I talked to Justin more so as a redshirt freshman than I did last year. The few times I talked to him last year was those times when he faced a little bit of adversity during those games, I told him to just stay even-keel, who you are. He was very receptive to that. As far as the intricacies of football, I leave that up to him. He does a great job of doing things and learning on his own but I’m always there if he needs me and we do have a pretty good relationship.”
Thomas won’t need any help getting ready for Thursday night and Alcorn State. In fact, that’s all he’s thinking and talking about.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Just going out there seeing a different colored jersey other than your defense’s every day, just going out there getting ready for the defense to start. It’s coming quick but we’re going to be ready for it.”
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