Amid the chaos of grumbling reporters, clacking keyboards and boisterous radio personalities at last month’s ACC Kickoff event, Justin Thomas was barely audible. He hunched over a table surrounded by a dozen curious bystanders hoping to elicit anything resembling a juicy quote from one of the ACC’s hotshot quarterbacks, but with each response they’d lean in, struggling to hear, then slump back in disappointment. Thomas isn’t a talker.
Then the inevitable question came, the one every Georgia Tech quarterback in the past seven years has faced more times than he cares count, the one designed to get a pointed response.
“Don’t you want to throw the ball more?” a reporter asked, noting Thomas’ success chucking the football downfield last season.
Georgia Tech runs an option offense, and the quarterback is more traffic director than gunslinger. It’s easy for a QB’s ego to outsize his role, and that’s really what this question is all about. Don’t you want to be the star?
Thomas glanced up, stone-faced, and offered an incontrovertible retort.
“We had two receivers drafted last season,” he said. “I think we’re doing fine.”
Indeed, two receivers were selected in the NFL draft from a team that threw the ball less than any other Power 5 program. Georgia Tech also won 11 games, delivered a crushing blow to the vaunted SEC West in the Orange Bowl and finished in the top five nationally in scoring rate, third-down conversions and yards per pass attempt.
After all that, Thomas is still happy simply directing traffic. It’s a job that suits him.
“He’s not hung up on all that other stuff,” coach Paul Johnson said. “He’s hung up on winning.”
Thomas’ nickname among teammates is “Smooov” because he’s always the coolest guy in the room. He’s forceful when he has to be, but that’s rare. He has a sense of humor, but he’s no clown. He cares about his team, but he’s not overtly social.
“He’s very mild-mannered,” left tackle Bryan Chamberlain said. “You get to know him, he’ll open up a little more, but you ask anyone -- he doesn’t talk much.”
Yet, without saying a word, Thomas commands a room. It’s how he carries himself -- with poise, with confidence. When Thomas does speak up, everyone listens. There’s power in his paucity of words. Each one matters.
It’s become clichéd in sports, but Thomas epitomizes the leader-by-example label.
“He gets the job done and does it the right way,” linebacker Beau Hankins said. “You want to be around those people.”
Tim Barton has spent a quarter-century examining leaders. As the managing partner of Barton Executive Search, it’s his job to identify candidates for management roles at some of the most powerful companies in the world. This summer, he hired Thomas -- along with several other Tech athletes -- as an intern. The junior QB researched job candidates, sat in on interviews and learned the business from the inside out.
In Thomas, Barton saw many of the same characteristics he looks for in a CEO.
“His DNA is very composed and quiet, but a very strong leader among his peers and around the office,” Barton said. “He’s not afraid to have an opinion, but he’s very thoughtful in what he says and how he says it.”
But it’s not just ability that makes a great leader. It’s also about finding the right environment in which to thrive.
Four years ago, Thomas was a coveted recruit. During his junior season at Prattville (Alabama) High, he ran a 4.2 40-yard dash in front of an impressed Nick Saban. As a recruit, he had suitors around the country. But while coaches all loved his athleticism, most wanted him as a defensive back, not a quarterback.
At Georgia Tech, things were different. Thomas might have been undersized to fit a pocket scheme like Alabama’s, but he was perfect for Johnson’s offense.
When Thomas’ first opportunity to start came last season, it was obvious to everyone that Georgia Tech had found the perfect conductor for its option attack. In 2014, the Jackets had their highest TD-INT rate, yards per rush and points per drive since Johnson took over as coach in 2008.
“There’s no question he’s a special player,” Johnson said. “But the biggest thing we got out of him a year ago that we maybe hadn’t had is, he bought in. He wasn’t worried about wanting to do something else. He bought in to what we did. All those kids did a year ago, and it was fun.”
The exciting part, Johnson says, is that Thomas is just scratching the surface. He wasn’t exceptional early last season, but by year’s end, he was tormenting defenses at Clemson, Georgia, Florida State and Mississippi State with dizzying runs and pinpoint passes.
The problem, according to the coach, is that now it’s expected.
“What you have to guard against with the other guys is waiting for him to bail them out of everything,” Johnson said. “Because he can do some of that.”
Thomas understands that too. He also realizes that, even if he’s happy simply being a cog in Johnson’s system, the rest of the machinery in 2015 is new.
So this offseason, Thomas upped his preparation. He’s gotten stronger in the weight room. He’s worked tirelessly with his new receiving corps, hoping to develop the same chemistry he had last year with Darren Waller and DeAndre Smelter.
“When I’m here,” Thomas said, “it’s all business.”
A year ago, business was good. Now Georgia Tech has a target on its back, and Thomas is a known commodity.
It’s not that Thomas is uncomfortable with any of that. He just doesn’t really care. The outside world changes, but he stays the same -- quiet, intense, determined.
One afternoon during Thomas’ summer internship, a co-worker bragged about his own athletic prowess, Barton said. Thomas wasn’t impressed. The best athletes don’t have to tout themselves, he said. Others do the talking for them.
People are talking about Thomas now -- for good reason. Inside the locker room though, Thomas doesn’t need to say a word.
“I am who I am, and there’s no reason to change,” Thomas said. “I see the world the same way, see the team the same way. I just go be me.”