After an eye-opening 2014 season for Georgia Tech and Justin Thomas, expectations soared for both.
Though Thomas lost his reliable receivers, A-backs and B-backs heading into 2015, coach Paul Johnson hoped his quarterback would be able to carry an inexperienced crew until they all understood their new roles.
Anybody who follows the Jackets knows how this story ended in December. Injuries and inexperience hamstrung Georgia Tech and Thomas, who was far less productive than anybody anticipated.
He went from 1,000 yards rushing to failing to even reach 500 yards; his yards per carry went from 5.7 to 3.4; his completion percentage dropped nearly 10 percent; his efficiency dipped over 30 points.
But the story is not over.
Thomas has not forgotten how to play, even though he goes into spring as one of the forgotten men in the ACC. Last July, Thomas finished third in voting for preseason ACC Player of the Year honors. When the All-ACC teams came out five months later, Thomas had dropped off all ballots.
While much of the discussion about quarterbacks in the ACC centers on Deshaun Watson, it is Thomas and Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya who are the most experienced starters returning to the league. That leads to one of the biggest questions surrounding Georgia Tech this spring: Will Thomas be the player we saw in 2014 or the one we saw last season?
“We’re excited,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “I think he’s excited to be back and have some guys who’ve played now.”
As Johnson explains it, 2015 was the opposite of 2014.
“Two years ago, he was surrounded by a bunch of guys who’d played, especially the skill guys and they could help him,” Johnson said. “Well last year, he’s trying to tell everybody where to go and what to do. It’s tough. You look out there and you’ve got a freshman behind you at B-Back and two freshmen at A-back and one of the receivers. It really limited what we could do offensively to some degree.”
For Georgia Tech to hum offensively, all the parts have to work in concert. Nothing worked in 2015, starting with the offensive line, all the way to the backs, receivers and quarterback. Though Thomas had as many lost fumbles in 2015 as he did the year before, the mistakes he made last season seemed amplified considering the 3-9 finish.
Against both North Carolina and Virginia, Thomas had crucial fumbles that led directly to touchdowns. In both instances, the Jackets had the lead when Thomas fumbled. They lost both games.
Thomas is so even keel, it is hard to tell when he is frustrated or upset. Johnson said, “I thought he handled himself pretty well. We were all frustrated. We’re not used to that. Nobody here is used to that kind of year. So everybody was frustrated.”
“He didn’t have a really great year, either. Part of it was his surroundings but he turned the ball over way too much. Part of that was him trying to do too much, but he certainly can play a lot better than he played last year.”
The Jackets are going to need him to if they want to get back to a bowl game.