Thomas has career day in first career start

Photo by John Nakano

In his first start of his career, sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas has already had himself a record-breaking day. Thomas scorched Wofford for 282 passing yards including 202 in the second half. Those 282 yards were the most by a Paul Johnson-coached team in his 14 years of being a head coach at the Division 1-A level. The previous mark was set by former quarterback, Tevin Washington, against Western Carolina where he threw for 271 yards.

It was a tale of two halves for Thomas. In the first half Thomas played like a player who was making his first career start as he overthrew several wide open receivers and didn’t look as sharp running the option offense. However, the second half was a completely different story; Thomas looked like a seasoned veteran as he marched the Jackets on four touchdown scoring drives and did not throw an incomplete pass the entire half. The way Thomas was checking down on routes, hitting the open man in stride, he appeared to be the most talented passing quarterback Johnson has had at Tech.

Thomas is definitely the fastest quarterback to ever play for Paul Johnson and has the potential to finish his career as the best to ever play for Johnson, but he and the offense have a lot of work left to do.

At halftime, the mood around the stadium was pretty gloomy.

“I would say the mood at halftime was kind of mellow. The defense played a great half beside that long run. We knew what we’re capable of doing. We just stayed together as a group and weren’t pointing fingers or yelling. We came together and did what we were supposed to do in the second half,” Thomas said.

After losing 7 starters on defense, fans expected the offense would have to carry the team to victories this season, yet only 10 points were put up on the board in the first half. Several potential touchdowns were missed.

Thomas overthrew wide receiver DeAndre Smelter near the end zone and missed a couple pitches that would have had the chance to go for touchdowns. Although learning the triple option is a growing process, this is already Thomas’ third year in the system.

“In the first half I missed a few guys. I overthrew them a little bit. In the second half I calmed down and made the throws I was supposed to,” said quarterback Justin Thomas. “Coach Johnson was telling people to calm down and play our game like he knows we can.”

During the first offensive possession in the second half, fans could tell that Johnson made the necessary adjustments on offense. Wofford was stacking the box by putting 9 men within seven yards of the line of scrimmage to sell out on stopping the run and chose to take out the rushing attack the Jackets have.

Wofford played tough assignment football and didn’t make many mistakes when Tech ran their option plays. As so many players were close to line of scrimmage, wide receiver DeAndre Smelter was left in one-on-one coverage.

With excellent hands and a rare combination of size and speed at the wide receiver position, there are not many players in the country who can cover Smelter one on one. Smelter has appeared to have made a giant jump in his second season playing football at Tech.

His performance  made Tech fans wish the former baseball player chose to play football from the start. He finished the game with 5 receptions for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Smelter had a 71 yard touchdown catch in third quarter to set the tone for the Jackets in the second half.

“It was pretty much just a streak route. I knew Justin would get me a good ball. After I caught it, I just wanted to make a play. I didn’t want to go down,” said senior wide receiver DeAndre Smelter. “I expected to come out and play hard. I know that if everyone does there job then we have a good chance to be productive.”

Not only did Thomas set a Johnson-era record for passing, but the offense also passed for more yards than they rushed for. It was the fourth time in 7 years that has happened at Tech.

Thomas’ final stat line was 11-for-15, 282 passing yards and 2 TD. His quarterback rating was 275.3 which is currently the highest QB rating in the country.  The new starter also completed 73.3 percent of his passes which is usually unheard of for a triple option quarterback.

On his 282 yard passing performance as a predominantly rushing team:

“I feel like if we can [pass like] that it opens up our running game even more. It just keeps the defense even more balanced. When we do get the opportunity to throw we take advantage of it,” Thomas said.

One big issue the last couple of seasons is when Tech would pass, they wouldn’t complete a very good percentage.

Last season, Vad Lee only completed 45.6 percent of his passes, and between him and Thomas, Vad was supposed to be the quarterback with the superior arm. Lee threw 11 touchdowns last year and had 10 interceptions in only 180 attempts.

An interception per 18 passing attempts is not a great stat to have. Too many times last year, Lee looked for the home run pass which led to a waste of a play and a very low completion percentage.

In the game against Wofford, Thomas showed poise and patience in the pocket which is a rare trait for a Tech quarterback to have. Thomas’ exceptional elusiveness allows him to stand in the pocket much longer than his predecessors. In the game against Wofford, the new quarterback didn’t get sacked and was not tackled in the backfield either.

“I think the offensive line did very well. Especially in the passing game. I don’t think I got touched at all. They came out there and did what they were supposed to do,” Thomas said.

Not taking sacks or getting tackled in the backfield will be the biggest improvement in the running game by a quarterback in Coach Johnson’s offense. Thomas’ agility will allow him to escape much easier than previous quarterbacks at Tech.

Thomas only ran for 71 yards against Wofford, but he averaged nearly six yards per carry which is almost three yards more than Lee from last year. His long from the game was 16 yards, and even though he was the fastest player on the field when A-back

Although Broderick Snoddy was not on the field, credit needs to be given to Wofford for doing a terrific job containing him on the outside.

Thomas will look for similar success against Tulane, but don’t expect Tech to finish with so many passing yards in that game. Tulane will do a better job at trying to defend the Tech passing attack and will probably let Tech establish the dive play with Zack Laskey more easily than Wofford.  It won’t be surprising if Tech scores more points against Tulane  than they did against Wofford.

The biggest key for Thomas this year is maintaining his current level of high play. If Thomas can go into Tulane with another outstanding passing game, it will do a lot of good for the young quarterback.