CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas now understands the old football axiom that quarterbacks get too much of the credit and too much of the blame applies to option as well as passing QBs.
He’s lived both ends of it the past two years directing the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense.
Thomas basked in the attention of an 11-3 season in 2014. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound fifth-year senior entered 2015 as one of the preseason favorites for ACC Offensive Player of the year and gained some preseason Heisman Trophy notice.
But as 2015 unfolded, he shouldered too much of the blame for a 3-9 record. He failed to gain even All-ACC honorable mention.
“Justin was surrounded by guys who had never played,” said Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson at the ACC Kickoff media days Thursday at the Westin Charlotte. “So the chemistry was not going to be that good. I looked on the field last year at Miami; the score was 7-7. We had the ball on their 4-yard line. I had nine freshmen playing offense. When that happens, it’s tough to be successful in our league and on this level in general.
“I think Justin will be a little more comfortable this year having some guys who have played. We’re still going to be young in the skill positions. But fortunately those guys all played a year ago, so it’s not going to be like they’re totally starting brand-new.”
Thomas, though, has come to terms with last year’s frustration.
“Sometimes I felt I wasn’t doing enough,” Thomas said. “This year I’ve learned you can only do so much. You have to stay within the offense and make sure everyone knows what they’re doing. Our offense is like a machine. If one part is missing it’s not going to work.
“Two years ago our veterans had the fourth-quarter experience in crunch time. We didn’t have that last year. If something bad happened everybody hung their head. These guys know what it takes and how it feels to be in such situations now. They’ve gotten better for it.”
In 2014, Thomas compiled 2,795 yards of total offense. He ran 190 times for 1,086 yards (5.7 per carry) and scored eight touchdowns. He completed 96 of 187 passes (51.3 percent) for 1,719 yards with 18 TDs and six interceptions.
In 2015, his numbers fell off to 488 rushing and a 3.4 average with six touchdowns. He completed only 41.7 percent of his passes (75 of 180 for 1,345) with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. After flirting with 3,000 total yards in 2014, he didn’t reach 2,000 last year.
But he had plenty of help in the team stats falling off.
In 2014, Georgia Tech was a plus-11 in turnovers. The third-down conversion rate was where it needs to be at 58 percent. The time of possession widely favored the Yellow Jackets, 34:09 to 25:51.
Last year the Yellow Jackets were minus-7 in turnovers with six more fumbles and one more interception than their opponents. Their third-down conversion rate slipped 35 percent largely as a result of too many third-and-long situations — that doesn’t suit a triple-option offense. Time of possession, which must heavily favor Georgia Tech’s style of play, slipped to nearly even, 31:08 to 28:52.
“You get three or four three-and-outs and you try (too hard) to make a play and get the team sparked up,” Thomas said. “We have to start out better in the games this year.”
There was one especially high point in last year’s 3-9 season when the Yellow Jackets upset then No. 9-ranked Florida State, 22-16. Georgia Tech controlled the ball 34:51 to 25:09. Thomas carried 13 times for 88 yards and one touchdown on a 60-yard gallop.
He did throw two interceptions and the third-down conversion was only 36 percent, but the time of possession and Thomas’ long TD run left Georgia Tech in position to win. All they needed was a break, and they got it with a blocked field goal that turned into a touchdown return as time expired. Georgia Tech outscored Florida State 12-0 in the second half.
“We still have young guys going into the season,” Thomas said. “But I know how they play and what they can do. I didn’t know that last year. We’re a lot more experienced this year.”