July 21, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– It’s just 90 minutes past the crack of dawn, and even with much of the day’s hard labor done, Justin Thomas is under pressure again. In the lobby outside of the Georgia Tech football locker room, the quarterback is taking questions.
These are not always productive situations. Thomas has never warmed to this part of his job description. He can leave media guessing as easily as he might leave a blitzer in dust.
This is different, though. JT is trying to author a new narrative, working hard to re-engineer for one last run as a Yellow Jacket. He has more to say.
Thomas, 22, is zeroed in on what’s going in – reshaping his eating, sleeping and workout patterns – and what will come out. The goal is to lead, and not only with body. He’s leaving comfort zones (and foods) behind while trying to live up to the teammates’ votes that have made him a rare three-time captain.
“I was a guy who would eat hot dogs, pizza rolls, fried chicken every day,” he said after a recent morning workout. “Now, I eat oatmeal or eggs every morning. All I’ve eaten is fish the last two weeks. I can tell the difference in my body. Honestly, the whole team has grown up. It’s not just me as far as leadership.
“KeShun [Freeman] is setting up a lot of these meetings, and we’ve had Pat [Gamble]. We’re trying to take control of the team. Two years ago, that was a player-led team. The coaches didn’t have to say much to get us going. Last year, there was a drop-off because it was a whole different personality.”
The Jackets went over a cliff last season. Nobody had in mind 3-9, and Thomas wasn’t the marvel of two years earlier. As the Jackets went 11-3 with wins over Clemson and Georgia and an Capital One Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State in which he was MVP, JT was dazzling like a brand of his own.
Already a captain, he was a quiet one as he rushed for a team-high 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns while passing for 1,719 with 18 scores and just six picks.
His leadership style was taciturn, and that was fine. Last year, not so much.
Tech needed more as the Jackets entered without five of their top six A-backs from 2014 and minus their top three B-backs. Two wide receivers had gone to the NFL, too, as did All-America right guard Shaquille Mason.
Tech struggled in every way offensively, where all of JT’s passing metrics slipped, and he completed just over 41 percent. His 3.4-yard rushing average was less than half that of two years earlier. One year, he gained yardage by leaps and bounds. Last year, he seemed to claw for 488 yards inch by inch.
Thomas’ body language fell short, as well, and Johnson’s told him all about it.
“If you go over and sit on the bench and put a towel on your head, that’s not sending a positive message to the other guys,” the head coach said of off-season conversations his quarterback. “My big charge was to him was you’ve got to take over the team, and be the leader.
“He did do that [with the towel] in 2014. If things weren’t going well, that was his way of reacting. What would happen was he would have four guys who would come over and get him, and go, ‘Hey, come on; let’s go!’ Now, those guys are looking for him to be the guy to come over and say, ‘OK, next play. Let’s go!’ “
When injuries came almost constantly last season and the Jackets grew younger by the game, Thomas free-lanced more than Johnson wanted.
“Some situations, yeah, just trying to make a play, trying to get something going,” he recalled. “It was something that you learn from: stay within the system and keep grinding.”
In an un-breakable cycle, opponents found more shots at Thomas each week, and his body ceased to be the on-call ally of his youth. At times, it betrayed him.
“I’m not going to say what it was, but I would say a lot,” he said when asked if his body left him unable to perform as he had in ’14, when he was second team All-ACC. “I don’t want to put excuses out there.
“If I was out there on the field, I was good enough to play. I might not have done everything in practice, but I was good enough to play.”
Thomas’ position coach eagerly awaits the Thomas of 2014 with upgrades.
Quarterbacks coach Bryan Cook hasn’t been able to work with Thomas or any players since spring practice as per NCAA rules, but like Johnson he gets reports from the strength and conditioning staff. Coaches also bump into players in the locker room. They know he’s been at the forefront of organizing off-season workouts, that he’s speaking up, that he’s leading by example and more.
“I think Justin’s focus is going to be in a really good place,” Cook said. “He’s dedicated himself to taking care of his body. The other thing he’s dedicated himself to is building chemistry with his receivers. How is the ball going to come out on a corner route?
“This is the best off-season he’s had from a leadership standpoint, without question. You just look at how he’s got the guys working.”
Work is being done, and senses of entitlement have been put away.
This time a year ago, Cook said, the Jackets seemed to act like, “they were already on third base, like they’d hit a triple [before the season began].”
Turns out the delirium of 2014 lasted too long, and set a messy table for 2015.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that. Historically here, we’ve struggled with that,” Johnson said of stringing consecutive strong seasons together. “We have short memories on how we got to certain places, and we just assume that it’s going to continue.”
“We’re more blue collar; we’ve got to work and put in the time.”
Thomas fits that, to be sure, yet coaches look for him to better utilize his pulpit.
JT has rarely pulled back a curtain for any real reveal, and he’s not about to tour like a rock star, not even today at the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte.
The fifth-year Jacket is different, though, and there’s a new tenor to his talk. The other day he made it clear after putting in work that it’s time for him to lead with tools other than his physical gifts.
“He’s earned a great deal of respect from teammates, because they see he’s a tough guy,” Johnson said of the 5-foot-11, 188-pound optioneer. “He wins every vote as far as captain. Clearly, they see him as a leader. He’s got to see himself, and use that collateral that he’s collected.”
With a business administration degree landed in May, Thomas the graduate student will have more time this fall for football. That won’t be his only incentive.
“Last year was horrible,” said the former Prattville [Ala.] High football, basketball and baseball standout. “I never had a season anywhere close to that in anything I played, so it was an experience that you can’t take winning for granted.
“It’s a lot different this year. I’m able to coach the guys up a little more, tell them you did this last year, and it’ll be different if we do it this way.”