When a coach finds the perfect quarterback for his style of play, the two names become a pair. Shula and Marino. Belichick and Brady. Lombardi and Starr. Landry and Staubach. Sure, those are all pro football examples, but the same thing can be done in college football too. Georgia Tech is a great example of that with the perfect combination of Paul Johnson and Justin Thomas.
When Paul Johnson first brought the option to Georgia Tech, we were all blessed to watch Joshua Nesbitt run it masterfully behind the playcalling of Johnson. Being college football, though, there is mass turnover year to year, so after Nesbitt graduated, someone needed to step up and fill that void. At first that came in the form of Nesbitt's replacement following his injury: Tevin Washington.
Tevin Washington was never anything special. He wasn't the biggest. He wasn't the strongest. He wasn't the fastest or the best passer, but he knew the offense. What I will always remember Tevin Washington for is the 2012 ACC Championship Game. Florida State jumped out to a 21-0 lead and for the most part, everybody thought the game was over. People already didn't think Tech deserved to be there after a 6-6 season, but Washington and the offense didn't give up. With some help on the defensive side of the ball, the Jackets shut down the Seminoles in the second half and if not for an interception in the closing minutes of the game, could have very well won the ACC Championship.
But he still wasn't the perfect match for Paul Johnson. All throughout Washington's tenure as the starting quarterback for the Jackets, fans (myself included) constantly moaned and groaned about how Washington was nothing special and the offense was getting boring to watch with him. Paul Johnson responded in that interesting 2012 season. Only a season prior, it seemed like Paul Johnson had finally found his quarterback in three-star athlete Vad Lee. He had the right size and could run and pass very well. In 2012, as a redshirt freshman, Lee played in 12 games with his playing time increasing in each of those games, while also proving to be a vocal leader in the locker room. He gave hope to the Yellow Jacket fanbase that Paul Johnson had found his quarterback to carry the team into the promised land.
And then came 2013. That season was miserable. After being named the starter, it seemed like every game, Vad Lee was running for his life or making a bad read. The fanbase was unhappy. After finishing with an uninspiring 7-6 season, there was a lot of drama. It all started right after the Music City Bowl when Vad Lee announced his intentions to transfer.
The guy who was deemed as the quarterback to carry the Yellow Jackets into the promised land was now leaving. Why? "The triple option was never really my thing."
Just like that, Tech had to find a new starting quarterback again. Thankfully, that 2012 season wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. At least in terms of recruiting. In that class, Paul Johnson managed to flip a player from the evil hands of Nick Saban: four-star athlete Justin Thomas. Though he was a quarterback in high school, Thomas was set to move to cornerback to play under some of the great defensive minds in Saban and Kirby Smart. And then he got to talking to Paul Johnson. Johnson offered him something that Saban couldn't: an opportunity to play quarterback. Thomas jumped at the opportunity and flipped his commitment to the Yellow Jackets.
Thomas got his feet wet in that 2013 season playing as Vad Lee's back-up, and was named the starter for the 2014 season, beating out Tim Byerly. Thomas was not the same person as Vad Lee. Lee was a very vocal and outspoken leader in the locker room. Thomas, he's kind of quiet. But he earned the respect of not just the fanbase, not just the team, but of Paul Johnson himself. Through the first two games of the 2014 season, there was a lot of uncertainty, but there was a moment when I knew that Justin Thomas was the guy.
I'm sure you all remember it very well. It was a sunny afternoon in Bobby Dodd Stadium as the Georgia Southern Eagles came in to take on the Yellow Jackets. Tech had absolutely dominated the first half and it looked like Southern was completely overmatched. In the second half, though, the Eagles stormed their way back and eventually took the lead over the Jackets. Time was running out and it looked like the Jackets could be upset by the former FCS team.
And then Jamal Golden forced a Georgia Southern fumble which Tech recovered with just over four minutes left on the clock. Paul Johnson trusted Justin Thomas despite it being just his third game as the starter. The Jackets moved methodically down the field and were getting close to the goal line when they were faced with a third-and-7 at the 13-yard line. I could tell you what happened next, but personally, I'd rather show you.
For the first time in a while, I had confidence in Georgia Tech's quarterback. And so did everybody else. Justin Thomas went on to lead this team to a fantastic season, even being elected by the team as a captain despite being just a redshirt sophomore. He led the team to victories over opponents that Tech constantly struggled with. Y'all remember worrying about the "Big 4" of Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson and UGA that Tech was always beat by. Justin Thomas and the Jackets beat every single one of them and finished the regular season 10-2.
Despite losing in the ACC Championship, the Jackets were still selected for the Orange Bowl to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Thomas came into this game and simply showed off. Again, I could tell you what happened, but my words would not do justice to the performance Thomas had.
Paul Johnson and Justin Thomas are good for each other. With Johnson's knowledge and playcalling, Thomas' physical talents are maximized and, in the end, both come out fantastically. They are a perfect combination.