ATLANTA -- The narrative around Georgia Tech has been completely flipped after one season watching Justin Thomas run the triple-option offense like a maestro.
Not just outside the program, mind you. Ask A-back Dennis Andrews what he thinks the Jackets can do in 2015. He replies quickly.
"I think we can go undefeated," he says.
What gives him such confidence?
"Justin," he says with a smile.
Thomas, quarterback extraordinaire, returns as one of the top players in the ACC after rushing for a career-high 1,086 yards -- a school single-season record for a quarterback -- while helping Georgia Tech set nine school offensive records.
Though there might be uncertainty at the A-back, B-back and receiver spots, there is absolutely none with Thomas. He is confident, competitive, fast, smart, athletic, elusive and completely in tune with coach Paul Johnson, who calls games not from a play sheet but from his head.
"If I had to take one guy to come back, he’s it," Johnson said. "He’s getting more and more understanding of what we’re doing. He’s not perfect. But he’s got a little bit of that 'it' factor in that the kids think he’s going to make the plays -- and he usually does."
That fosters trust and breeds confidence among teammates, as last season showed. Those intangibles are crucial to any team’s success.
"It was a fun group because they liked doing what they were doing," Johnson said. "There wasn’t the whining, not that we ever had that in bunches. I’m not real sure our leader was bought in before. When that’s the case ... I’m not really sure they liked him, some of them. As a coach, you don’t always feel that until sometimes it’s too late."
The leader before Thomas was Vad Lee, who transferred out of the program after the Jackets finished the 2013 season 7-6. Thomas and Lee split time that season, but to players on that team, there did not seem to be any question who should be starting.
"Honestly, ever since Justin got here, the whole team was like, 'This guy needs to be playing quarterback for us," Andrews said. "He’s really fast and he can throw the ball and he’s really quick. He’s got cat-like reflexes back there. It’s like he has eyes in the back of his head. I’ve got a lot of trust in that guy."
Thomas proved himself so much last season, he has been in a non-contact jersey all spring -- the first time Johnson has done that with any of his quarterbacks at Georgia Tech. Andrews noted that Thomas looks faster this spring, though Thomas laughs that off. Perhaps he looks faster because he is not getting hit.
It is fairly obvious the last thing Georgia Tech needs is an injured Thomas, so the defense is perfectly fine with leaving their teammate alone. What is more important this spring is developing a trust with his new starting receivers, A-backs and B-backs.
Last season, Thomas had the luxury of seniors lining up to help him out at all those positions. Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey, Charles Perkins, Tony Zenon, Deandre Smelter and Darren Waller were all integral pieces to the offense.
Now, Thomas is the veteran of the group and the only starting spot seemingly penciled in right now belongs to Andrews. B-back is so uncertain, Johnson is waiting on freshmen to arrive in the summer before making any determinations.
"They might not have as much experience, but with me being back there, I can’t do it all myself," Thomas said. "I have to still rely on those guys, so I have to instill in them that I trust in them. I’m not just going to try and take the reins all by myself. Everybody back there has a job and I’m expecting them to do that job and I’m trusting them to do it."
Having Thomas back there is a luxury other Georgia Tech teams have not had. Cornerback D.J. White, going into his senior season, said, "There’s plays I’ve seen him make where a typical quarterback in this offense would take a negative-5 yard gain, but he’ll make 10 yards out of it. If you have a quarterback like him, you have a chance."
That is why many believe Georgia Tech will win the Coastal this season. What is a little more nebulous is Thomas’ ranking among a strong group of returning quarterbacks, from Deshaun Watson to Marquise Williams to Brad Kaaya to Jacoby Brissett.
White faced them all last season.
"I’ll speak for him. Justin’s the best," White said. "I say that not just from a statistical standpoint, because he’s not slinging the ball around like they would at Clemson, but his impact on the team and what he’s able to do -- he’s able to make plays out of nothing. There aren’t too many guys who do that and do that well."
Thomas is more demure.
"I’ll let my work show on the field."