Countdown to Kickoff: 82 Days
This week, our “100 Days to Kickoff" series continues as we look at five players who are some of the best and most important to the team in 2016. When we started doing these a few years back, the idea was to model them after the old NCAA Football video game series, which would assign “Impact Players” to each team based on talent, position, and production levels. This week, we’ll be selecting players based on those same factors, but moreso on their overall importance to the team this fall. (That is, these aren't necessarily the team's five best players.) We begin today with the most obvious one.
QB Justin Thomas, RS-Senior
Whether talking about skill, production, or importance to the team, the list wouldn’t possibly be complete without the quarterback.
Justin Thomas returns in 2016 for his third (and final) season as a starter, looking to re-establish himself as one of the premier playmakers in the conference and across the country. As a sophomore in 2014, Thomas famously led an insanely efficient offense to wins against all of Georgia Tech's major rivals (breaking several losing streaks along the way), a near-victory against then-undefeated Florida State in the ACC Championship Game, and to an Orange Bowl victory where he scored 3 touchdowns and was named the game MVP. As one might imagine, that repeated success on the national stage resulted in very high hopes for the quarterback in 2015, with some even thinking he was a dark horse candidate for the Heisman trophy.
As we all know, things didn't go quite as well in 2015 as they did a year prior. With all of his skill position players from 2014 graduated and with his best offensive lineman in the NFL, Thomas struggled mightily to compensate for mistakes caused by inexperience, both at the skill positions around him and the offensive line trying to protect him. Not only did the struggles of others impact the offense's performance at a whole, but it also dragged down the level of play we saw from Thomas individually. As mistakes piled up from play to play, drive to drive, and week to week, Thomas gradually lost his trust in his teammates. He tried to compensate for those mistakes by keeping the ball when he shouldn't and by throwing dangerous passes into coverage. In essence, by trying to do too much himself, Thomas got away from doing the things that made him so successful in 2014.
That’s why, in 2016, it's imperative that Thomas return to form from 2014, and avoid returning to bad habits developed in 2015. Part of that calls for the teammates around him to develop and learn from last year’s mistakes, but it also requires Thomas to trust them and make the right decisions. Instead of worrying about his ball carriers fumbling, Thomas needs to get the ball to whichever player is dictated by the defense. Instead of forcing passes downfield when the team falls behind, Thomas needs to throw the ball away and live to play another down instead of turning the ball over. By making the right decisions and trusting his teammates, Thomas will put the offense in much better position to succeed, leading to much better results on the field.
The good news is that, regardless of what happened last season, Thomas still has the elite physical ability that got him so much attention in 2014 -- his speed and agility are as good as anyone’s in the country. As long as Thomas is physically healthy, those tools combined are a weapon that opposing defenses will always have to plan for. By using that extra attention to put his teammates in positions to be successful, and by using his gifts to make defenses pay when they make mistakes, there won’t be a player on Georgia Tech’s team that has more of an impact on the outcome of the 2016 season than Justin Thomas.