Dec. 29, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There’s no connection on the football field that requires more trust and greater coordination than the one between the center and the quarterback.
It’s a connection that takes place on every offensive play of every game yet also one that’s taken for granted until something goes wrong.
For 37 of Georgia Tech’s last 38 games over the past three years, the Yellow Jackets have had a special connection with center Freddie Burden snapping to quarterback Justin Thomas. Together, they’ve run more than 2,400 plays, some special, some not-so-special. But regardless of how they finished, they’ve started with Burden and Thomas.
What began on Aug. 30, 2014 against Wofford at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Bobby Dodd Stadium will conclude on Saturday at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., when Georgia Tech takes on Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The conclusion of their spectacular collegiate careers makes an already special game even more special.
“It’s been amazing. We came in together and have been together ever since,” said Burden, a Statesboro, Ga, native who’ll make the 38th start of his career versus UK on Saturday (he’d started 35 straight until having to sit out Nov. 12 at Virginia Tech. “Our first year starting for both of us was 2014, so it’s almost second-nature having J.T. at quarterback with me. I really don’t have to worry about snapping, just really focus on my assignments more so than snapping. It’s been great.”
“[Our relationship has] grown each year,” said Thomas, a Prattville, Ala. native, who’ll also make the 38th start of his career on Saturday (like Burden, he sat out against Virginia Tech on Nov. 12 due to injury). “You can’t really ask for a better center. He’s always been there. Every game I`ve been in, he’s been in. He’s got my back, I’ve got his back.”
The Yellow Jackets have won 21 games with Thomas and Burden in the starting lineup. The duo has also led the Jackets to an ACC Coastal Division championship, two both berths (including an Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State in 2014) and two wins over Georgia, both in Athens.
“They’ve both been mainstays in the program,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “They both got their degrees, they’ve both been great kids to have on the team.”
The first year Thomas and Burden played together (2014) saw Tech win 11 games, tied for the second-most in team history, and roll up school records for total yards (6,671), rushing yards (4,789), rushing yards per game (342.1) and points (530) in a season, with an average of 476.5 yards (second-most in school history) and 37.9 points per game (sixth). The Jackets led the ACC in more than a dozen statistical categories.
Within that team success was individual greatness.
Thomas, a three-time captain, came to Georgia Tech in 2012 and, after redshirting as a true freshman, played 10 games behind then-starter Vad Lee as a redshirt freshman in 2013.
He took over the starting job in 2014 and immediately made his mark. Thomas became the sixth Georgia Tech QB to rush for over 1,000 yards, going for a team-high and career-best 1,086 yards. He had five 100-yard rushing games, nine 100-yard passing games and accounted for 26 touchdowns. Eight of his scores came on the ground, with the final three sparking Tech to a 49-34 victory in the Orange Bowl victory over No. 7 Mississippi State. J.T. was named second-team all-ACC by league coaches and third-team all-ACC by media following his spectacular sophomore campaign.
The most memorable part of that season for Georgia Tech quarterbacks/B-backs Coach Bryan Cook came on Nov. 29, when the No. 16 Jackets upended No. 9 Georgia, 30-24 in overtime, at UGA’s Sanford Stadium. Thomas ran for 34 yards and passed for 64 and a touchdown, but what amazed Cook was that the quarterback got on the field at all.
“He jammed his hand in pregame taking a snap and it was bad,” Cook recalled. “He couldn’t do anything in pregame. Coach Johnson asked, `What’s wrong?’ I said, `Coach, he jammed his finger. I don’t know if he can play. It might be broken.’ He came out and he had a game that day. There were ups and downs but he competed at a really high level. I’ll remember that for the rest of my career. I won’t get rattled if a quarterback jams his finger anymore.”
After a solid 2015 (488 rushing yards and a team-high-tying six touchdowns on 145 carries to go along with 1,345 passing yards and 13 touchdowns on 75-of-180 passing), Thomas led the Jackets’ bounce-back season of 2016. He accounted for 2,016 yards of total offense (562 on the ground, 1,454 through the air) and 13 TDs (five rushing, eight passing). Thanks in large part to a whopping 19.9 yards per completion and only two interceptions, he owns a pass-efficiency rating of 162.34, which would have led the ACC and ranked eighth in the country had he had enough attempts to qualify.
Thomas had one of his finest games on Oct. 29 at Bobby Dodd, going for 459 yards of total offense in Tech’s 38-35 win over Duke. It was the third-most total yards in a game in Georgia Tech history. J.T. accounted for four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) while gaining 195 yards on the ground and 224 more through the air. In that game he became the 39th player in NCAA history to total 4,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in a career and was named the Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week.
“J.T. will go down in Georgia Tech history as being a guy who created a lot of memories,” said Johnson. “Winning twice in Athens, being MVP of the Orange Bowl game, just some of the plays he made during his career.”
Burden admitted that it was hard to not occasionally get caught up watching Thomas make positive plays out of tenuous situations.
“You do want to watch J.T.,” he said. “You know he’s an amazing playmaker but you still have to focus on your assignment. So, the most time I see him is in the film room the next day.”
The film room is actually where offensive line coach Mike Sewak has some of his favorite memories of Burden.
“Freddie’s got some good one-liners, some good jokes. He’ll sit in that meeting room sometimes and he’ll say it under his breath but he does say them a lot,” said Sewak, with a smile. “He’s got a pretty good wit about him. I think that meeting room is one of the things that I like about Freddie the best.”
Sewak, goes way back with the Burden family, dating back to his time on the staff at Georgia Southern, in the Burdens’ hometown of Statesboro, Ga. He knew Freddie’s father, Freddie Sr., who passed away on Dec. 4, 2015, knows his mom, Velma, recruited older brother, Willie, and even coached Freddie, then a power-hitting first baseman in little league baseball. He marveled at the knowledge his center brought to his craft on the O-line and will miss their banter.
“He understands the game real well. You can talk to Freddie on a coach-to-coach level when you’re talking about schemes,” said Sewak. “This is Freddie’s last time. Every time I go to the practice field, I say, `Line `em up, Freddie.’ Next year, it’s like [freshman offensive lineman] Kenny Cooper says, `What are you going to do next year?’ I say, `I’ll still say Freddie. It’ll just be you.'”
Burden’s perseverance most impresses Johnson.
“Freddie is a guy who has been really resilient, consistent,” he said. “He was a tight end in high school and came in here and has turned into a guy at center that may have a chance to play on the next level.”
Burden redshirted as a true freshman but showed he would be special, earning Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year honors.
He showed his resilience when he was forced to miss his second season at Tech with a knee injury.
Things changed for the better in 2014, as Freddie broke into the starting lineup. He earned honorable-mention all-ACC, anchoring an offensive line that ranked second in the nation (tops in the ACC) allowing just .70 sacks per game and leading the nation in rushing offense (4,789 yards) and rushing yards per game (342.1).
He would start 35-straight games, including all 12 in 2015, when he was one of only two starting offensive linemen to start every game for a unit that played five different starting combinations (left guard Trey Braun was the other). He was his usual stellar self despite playing with a heavy heart while dealing with his father’s illness.
Freddie saved the best for last, as he started 11 games this season (the TaxSlayer will be No. 12) and earned first-team all-ACC honors from ESPN. He was named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week following the Jackets’ 38-7 rout of Vanderbilt, during which Tech rambled for 511 total yards of offense, including 289 on the ground, and grounded eight Commodore defenders.
Thomas and Burden have become close off the field and will continue their friendship, even as both prepare to go their separate ways.
Burden, who graduated last spring with a degree in business administration and spent the fall completing an internship at Barton Executive Search, will prepare next for Pro Day and, hopefully, an invitation to the NFL Combine.
“[I’ll be] Training and all that good stuff, just trying to get around the right guys and get all that set up. I’m excited for that,” he said.
Thomas, who also graduated last spring with a degree in business administration, will probably also display his skills at Pro Day but is mum on his long-term future. Short term, though, he and Burden are looking forward to one more game together as a unit.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time and just enjoying each moment,” Thomas said. “We’re very appreciative (of the bowl game). It gives you that extra time with the guys, once the regular season is over just to be with them, get some more practices in and another game.”