At Alabama’s Prattville High, Justin Thomas passed on roughly 70 percent of his team’s plays.
He was in the shotgun almost exclusively — he estimates he was under center maybe five times all senior year.
Then he came to Georgia Tech, where he is under center virtually every play and where he throws an average of just 13 passes a game.
That’s a major adjustment, but Thomas has made it so well he has earned a nickname.
“We call him ‘Smooth,’” said Georgia Tech fullback Zach Laskey.
The moniker fits. Thomas, a 5-11, 189-pound redshirt sophomore, rarely gets flustered, even when he is hit by defenders who outweigh him by more than 100 pounds.
“He’s one of the toughest guys on the team,” said Adam Gotsis, a native of Australia and Georgia Tech’s standout defensive lineman. “In the spring, we hit him a bunch of times, but the kid kept getting up.
“In games, he gets crunched pretty much every time. He’s just one of those tough guys. Being the leader that he is, he doesn’t want to show weakness.”
Indeed, Thomas started every one of Georgia Tech’s 13 games and will be a key on Wednesday night when the No.10 Yellow Jackets (10-3) taken on No.8 Mississippi State (10-2) in the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium.
Thomas was a backup last season to Vlad Lee, who decided to transfer to James Madison.
But what looked like it might be a negative turned into a positive as Georgia Tech improved from 7-6 to 10-3 with Thomas.
“I give credit to what Vlad did before,” Georgia Tech linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “But Vlad wasn’t ‘all in’ to the system. Vlad wanted to pass a lot more.
“With Justin, he is running this offense the best that anyone can. He can pass, but when he gets into open space, he’s going to show you some wheels.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, the master architect of his team’s triple-option attack, agrees that Thomas “is a great fit” for this offense.
“Justin’s skill set is conducive to what we do,” Johnson said. “He’s not a rah-rah guy, but I think our guys look up to him as a leader. They trust him.”
Laskey said that trust started to truly build in the Yellow Jackets’ third game of the season. After blowing Georgia Southern out early — Tech led 35-10 at the half — the Yellow Jackets hit a lull.
Georgia Southern, looking for a huge in-state upset, took a 38-35 lead with 4:12 remaining.
“Justin came into the huddle and said: ‘We are going to go down and win this game,’” Laskey said. “Right there, I knew this kid had all the tools.”
Thomas won that game with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Deon Hill with just 23 seconds left. Thomas avoided a blitz on that play to throw his fourth TD pass of the game.
Had they lost that game, Georgia Tech almost certainly would not be playing in the Orange Bowl. But Thomas would not let that happen.
“I’ve never once felt a sense of panic from him,” Laskey said of Thomas. “I love that about him.”
Thomas’ intangibles are off the charts — unselfish, tough, calm and studious. Thomas said he has never sustained a concussion, and he rarely misses a play.
“I try my best to play smart and not take any hits,” he said. “But if I get hit, that’s football.”
As for his lack of ego, Thomas said he sees his job much the way an unselfish point guard in basketball goes about his business.
“As long as I’m doing my part, everyone should get the ball,” Thomas said. “Some games on the stat sheet, I will have a big game. Some games, I won’t. But as long as we get the win, that’s all that matters.”