Spring practice for the 2014 football season has started and the Jackets will practice every day up until the spring game on Friday, April 18. This is the first time since the bowl game loss to Ole Miss that coaches have been able to host formal practice and get a preview of what the team will look like once the season starts.
It has not been a quiet offseason on the Flats as much has changed within the program. Starting quarterback Vad Lee has transferred to James Madison University.
With the news of Lee leaving the program, redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Thomas was elevated as one of the team leaders and the favorite to be the starting quarterback for the first game against Wofford. Thomas has embraced his new leadership role with open arms.
“I’m just trying to get to know the guys a lot more and trying to put myself out there as more of a team leader,” Thomas said. “The coaches told me to do what I’ve been doing—to keep working hard, continue to get better every day—and the guys will be looking to me for leadership and to step up.”
Thomas will have three years to show his talents on the Flats and his speed and dynamic play on the outside will instantly make him a fan favorite. There may not be a faster quarterback in the country than Thomas. In high school Thomas won the 100 meter track title for the state of Alabama. Opposing defenses will have a very challenging time this year containing Thomas’s speed.
“I guess it can be more difficult to stop because you never know if I’m going to keep it and bust it open for a long run, I could pitch it to the A-back who is just as fast and they could bust it for a long run or even run the dive to Laskey and the new B-backs we have. They all have pretty good speed and the more speed you have the easier it is to read the play and get the job done,” Thomas said.
This season will be the first since 2011 where Tech will only play with one quarterback. The past two seasons Coach Johnson has given meaningful playing time to the top two on the quarterback depth chart. Thomas does not believe there was ever pressure the past season when he and Lee were competing for the starting QB spot.
“I wouldn’t ever say there was a pressure. I just go out there and do what I’m supposed to do and try to do it to the best of my abilities no matter if I’m a starter, backup or third string. Every time I touch the field I try to give 100 percent,” Thomas said.
The past few weeks Thomas and the other receivers have been participating in drills to gain some chemistry and practice passing routes. Thomas feels confident in his passing abilities and wants people to know that just because he is fast doesn’t mean he won’t throw.
Thomas looks to be only the second quarterback in the Johnson era to finish the season with higher than a 50 percent completion percentage. The wide receiver core will be the deepest it’s ever been in the Johnson era. The Jackets return their top three receivers from last season.
“Right now we’re trying to keep people as healthy as possible. We’ve been throwing every Monday and Wednesday at 1:30 before workouts. We have a good group of guys that come out, and we just go through all the routes,” Thomas said. “I feel real confident. Where I come from, that’s who we are. We like to run and gun. It’s not like I can’t throw the ball. If I had the option I would really like to throw it anyway. The speed part just comes along with my arm.”
During spring practice the team looks to show improvement from last year. Nobody was happy with a 7-6 record, as Paul Johnson said in an interview with the AJC, and success for this season will start with the offense playing better as a unit.
“This spring there’s a different group of guys out there playing together. We need to try to come [together] as one and correct all the mental mistakes we had last year and just get better,” Thomas said.
There have been many freshmen that have caught Thomas’ eye, and he is confident in the potential the team has. Three seniors graduated from the offensive line and he believes freshman Chris Griffin and Shamire Devine will turn heads this fall.
“[Chris and Shamire] can make a big impact. We have a few missing puzzles on the line because of the seniors that graduated last year. If they can step up and play well, that would be big,” Thomas said. “On the defensive side we have defensive backs, linebackers like PJ [Davis] who didn’t even have to redshirt. We have a good group of young athletes that will come in and contribute,” Thomas said.
Thomas and the team have lofty goals next year. They want to get the program back on track and he wants to be the one that breaks the losing streaks against Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia. Thomas has been hitting the weight rooms hard this offseason. He is working on improving his conditioning, agility, endurance and strength. Thomas is the smallest quarterback Tech has had since Johnson arrived, but he is going to use his size and his elusiveness to his advantage. He has been watching film to give himself every edge to get better for next season.
“I’m hoping to win every game. Every game matters. Clemson, Georgia and Virginia Tech specifically especially those two in the conference. As long as we take it one game at a time and focus on beating each opponent each week then we should be alright,” Thomas said.