Georgia Tech Football: A Look Back at the Career of Justin Thomas
All good things must come to an end, and for Georgia Tech that means the end of the Justin Thomas era on the Flats. Frequently hailed as the best all-around quarterback to ever run Paul Johnson’s option offense as a head coach, Thomas just wrapped up his college career after starting three seasons for the Yellow Jackets.
Having committed to Bama without assurance he’d be playing his preferred position of quarterback, the Prattville native and lifelong Tide fan had to reconsider his future in football, and Paul Johnson’s offense offered him much more of a clear path to living his dream.
His flipped commitment may have gone largely unpublicized, but Justin Michael Bryant Thomas’ decision not to play for the Alabama program he’d always loved, sparked a revitalization of the Paul Johnson era in Atlanta. Notice that second middle name? That’s no fluke, as Thomas was partially named after Bama’s legendary coach Bear Bryant.
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In 2013, Lee assumed the starting role for the Jackets, but Thomas saw action in 10 games as a redshirt freshman backup. When Vad Lee transferred to James Madison after the season, Justin Thomas moved into the starting spot prior to 2014 spring practice, and he never relinquished the job.
By the time Jackets fans were singing “Auld Lang Syne” to say farewell to 2014, Justin Thomas had deeply rooted himself in Georgia Tech football folklore. In fact, some of those fans literally sang the tune along side their new favorite quarterback as he hoisted the Orange Bowl MVP trophy and threw citrus out to his teammates as confetti fell onto the field in Miami.
During Tech’s 11-3 season in 2014, Thomas started all 14 games, having thrown for over 1,700 yards and rushed for nearly 1,100. He was responsible for 26 touchdowns, and had five 100 yard plus rushing games. Behind Thomas, the Jackets had beaten rivals Virginia Tech, Virginia, Clemson and Georgia, and only lost by two points to No. 4 Florida State in the ACC title game.
Thomas had become the first sophomore under Paul Johnson to be named a team captain, and his performance on New Year’s Eve versus Dak Prescott’s Mississippi State Bulldogs in the 2014 Orange Bowl gave the entire nation a chance to see why.
Thomas led the offense to a 49-34 thrashing of No. 7 MSU’s SEC defense, throwing for 125 yards, and rushing for another 121 with four total touchdowns. The season had earned Justin Thomas Second Team All-ACC honors, only losing out to FSU’s Jameis Winston.
Even in a disappointing 3-9 season for the Yellow Jackets in 2015, Thomas still put up impressive numbers for an option quarterback, throwing for over 1,300 yards, and gaining just shy of 500 on the ground. Tech still managed to upset No. 9 Florida State, but came out on the wrong end of too many close losses during the season.
Looking to rebound in 2016, Thomas and the Jackets got off to a 3-0 start on the season, then lost the next three straight, leaving doubt that Johnson’s squad had managed to fix the deficiencies from the season prior.
Tech then went on a 6-1 run to finish out the season and wrap up Thomas’ career with a win over rival Georgia, and a Gator Bowl victory over Kentucky on New Year’s Eve. Against Duke during the regular season, Thomas threw for 264 yards, and rushed for another 195 for four touchdowns. Before taking a knee several times to run out the clock, Thomas actually had rushed for over 200 yards in the game, accomplishing a feat rarely seen in college football.
In the end, Thomas had led his Jackets to a 9-4 record, and went 3-0 against SEC East teams in 2016. He added another 1,559 yards passing, and 604 yards rushing to his career totals.
The man they call “Smoove” wrapped up his college career as a quarterback with 7,166 total yards (4,754 passing, 2,412 rushing) with 62 total touchdowns. In 523 attempts, he only threw 18 interceptions in his 48 games for the Jackets.
Perhaps it’s too soon to debate where Thomas fits among the best quarterbacks in Georgia Tech history, but going forward it’d seem strange to talk about names like Lothridge, Hamilton, Godsey, Nesbitt, and Jones, without also mentioning Justin Thomas.