ATLANTA — Justin Thomas is still a bit miffed about last season.
He doesn’t want to go through it again, that’s for sure.
“It’s no fun,” said Georgia Tech’s senior quarterback. “I’m pretty sure a lot of us never experienced anything like that before. It was a learning experience. You can’t take winning for granted.”
A year ago, Thomas was still riding high after leading the Yellow Jackets to a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and an Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State. He was being touted as one of the most dynamic players in the country, an undersized but unique talent in coach Paul Johnson’s option offense.
Some pundits were even throwing around the idea of Thomas contending for the Heisman Trophy.
That all fell apart when Georgia Tech collapsed to a 3-9 record, its worst mark in more than two decades. The Yellow Jackets managed only one win in the ACC, a stunning upset of Florida State that showed the team’s tantalizing potential but did little to ease the sting of such a disappointing year.
Now, heading into his final season, Thomas is determined to go out with a more worthy showing. The Yellow Jackets open the season Saturday against ACC rival Boston College in Dublin, Ireland, which marks the first trip out of the country for the quarterback and many of his teammates.
This isn’t a sightseeing trip, however.
“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to play,” Thomas said, his voice rising. “That wasn’t no fluke (in 2014). What you saw two years ago is who I am. I plan on showing that again.”
His teammates have sure noticed a difference in the signal-caller, who had always been a bit soft-spoken, preferring to let his performance on the field do his talking.
Not any longer.
“It’s almost shocking,” receiver Ricky Jeune said. “He’s such a mellow dude. But it’s nice seeing JT step up, and really speak up and getting the team together. He’s always been pushing me, but now I’m like, ‘All right, I’ve definitely got to do this because Justin’s going to be on my case.'”
Surrounded last season by inexperienced players at running back and receiver, and plagued by a leaky offensive line that didn’t provide much protection, Thomas looked like a one-man show at times. He took the weight of the team on his shoulders, his bravery and toughness never in question but the results a far cry from the previous year.
“We had a lot of new faces on the team,” he said. “At the same time, they didn’t know what to expect. They were coming to this big, hyped team. They thought it came easy. Now we know we have to go back to the lab.”
Thomas’ rushing yards plunged from 1,086 to 488, while his average per carry dipped from 5.7 to 3.4. While passing was never his forte in the run-oriented offense, there was a dramatic drop-off as his completion percentage went from 51.3 to 41.7. His yards and touchdowns through the air also took a downward turn. His interceptions went up.
When things in front of him broke down, which happened often, he often resorted to hurried, desperation throws that had little chance of being caught, at least by the Yellow Jackets.
That’s been a focus during the offseason.
“Just trying to stay calm in the pocket,” Thomas said. “Not be so antsy.”
Of course, the Yellow Jackets are known for their running game.
Thomas expects the triple-option to return to its devastating form, now that he can rely on myriad players with a year under their belts. Plus, the Yellow Jackets have added some new weapons on offense. B-back Dedrick Mills will be the first true freshman to start his first game at Georgia Tech since 2008, Johnson’s debut season as coach. Former Georgia running back J.J. Green, who sat out last season after transferring to the Yellow Jackets, figures to get plenty of playing time at A-back.
“Everybody’s locked in,” Thomas said. “There’s no questions or hesitation. Everybody is playing fast. At this point last year, we were still learning. Now we’re not. We’re just going out there and playing and having fun.”
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org