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Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas finds his 2014 form against Vanderbilt

David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

Obviously, a canyon separates Georgia Tech’s tasks the past two seasons.

Traveling to Notre Dame and losing in last season’s third game and — on the other hand — beating Vanderbilt 38-7 on Saturday in this season’s third outing are different beasts.

Let’s still give the Yellow Jackets credit, though, for being far ahead of a year ago.

They needed to be playing more like the Ramblin’ Wreck rather than a rambled wreck if Georgia Tech is to have any hope to improve to 4-0. Next up is resuming ACC play on a short week.

The Yellow Jackets (3-0, 1-0 ACC Coastal) face No. 5 Clemson Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. Clemson opens ACC play after it improved to 3-0 with a 59-0 win Saturday over South Carolina State.

Georgia Tech’s rout of Vanderbilt (1-2) in a non-conference game was about more than numbers such as outgaining the Commodores, 511 total yards to 275. It was about attitude.

At ACC Media Days in July, Georgia Tech senior quarterback Justin Thomas blamed himself for last year’s tumble to a 3-9 record. With a young offense around him, he said he tried to do too much.

After a 2-0 start with wins over Boston College (17-14) in Ireland and Football Championship Subdivision member Mercer College (35-10) last week, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson told Thomas he wanted him to play more aggressively.

“I had challenged him a little earlier,” Johnson said after the game. “I told him we needed some more out of him rushing, and he had a couple of nice runs. I think he would have had a couple others if he had stayed outside he could have really (broken). When he sees on the film he’s going to be disappointed, but I thought we got contributions out of pretty much all the guys.”

Maybe Thomas was thinking too much the first two weeks, but he looked more like the Justin Thomas of 2014 against Vanderbilt. He rushed 11 times for 84 net yards and spread the ball to his backs. Clinton Lynch rushed three times for 77 yards and Dedrick Mills 14 for 58 and three touchdowns.

Thomas also threw for 136 yards and a touchdown without an interception. He was 6-of-13 passing.

Lynch caught two of his balls for 87 yards and a TD to finish with 164 total yards. Sophomore running back Marcus Marshall caught one ball he took for an 81-yard catch-and-run TD despite running the ball only three times for eight yards.

“Dedrick got some tough yards,” Johnson said. “They were kind of committed to stopping the B-back inside, which is fine. It opens up the pitches, and we had some huge plays on the perimeter when we got the thing executed right.”

Thomas, a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder from Prattville, Alabama, entered his junior season considered an outside Heisman Trophy candidate. He was a second-team All-ACC pick by the coaches and third team by the media.

However, the 30-22 loss to Notre Dame in last season’s third game turned out to be the first of four straight defeats.

What a difference a year makes. Thomas was the forgotten man by the time voters cast their Heisman ballots. Meanwhile, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was in New York for the Heisman ceremonies. He finished third in the voting. He and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey (second last year) were everyone’s preseason favorites.

As a quarterback of an unbeaten team in 2016, Thomas has a chance to remind everyone of his game while playing opposite Watson. He’s a lot closer to that player now than he was after three games a year ago.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055

Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas finds his 2014 form against Vanderbilt

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