clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Opinion Week: Justin Thomas Isn't Winning a Heisman Trophy

It's not that he's short on talent. It's actually not a criticism of Thomas at all. There's another issue entirely that's going to prevent him from winning such an award.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

That's right, it's my turn to make an appearance here in Opinion Week, and I'm coming out guns blazing. This is going to be an unpopular opinion (or at least a bit of a reality check), so fasten your seat belt and prepare for a couple of piping hot #takes.

As much as we like to fantasize and talk about Justin Thomas and his Heisman campaign, I think it's time that we have an honest discussion and manage a few expectations. On a purely realistic and objective level, Thomas won't be striking the pose in mid-December. I'm not saying Thomas doesn't have Heisman-level talent -- he does, as we've seen since his high school film. It's more that I don't think there's anyone in his position who could win it.

More specifically, I'd find it nearly inconceivable that any quarterback in a spread option offense constructed and operated as Paul Johnson's is would be capable of winning the trophy. It's not an issue of the individual player -- it's a scheme issue. (Even then, I don't know that you'd call it an "issue" so much as a "side effect" or "byproduct".)

Paul Johnson's offense is constructed around the concept that, assuming all assignments are completed effectively, the defense can't stop every last bit of it. Instead, the defense is forced to decide which elements to take away -- the dive, the keep, the pitch, and/or the pass. By sheer numbers and design, one of those will always be available to the offense, except when a) an offensive player misses an assignment, and/or b) a defensive player makes an outstanding play. In general though, one of those will be available to the offense on each play, and which one the quarterback chooses to go with should all depend on what the defense does.

That being said, for Justin Thomas to put up Heisman-caliber numbers, he would either have to encounter defensive coordinators that consistently allow him to do it, or somehow acquire superpowers. Part of Thomas's success last year had to do with him being a bit of an unknown early on, and then later having a number of established veteran weapons around him. There was a legitimate argument to be made as to why defenses might want to focus more on Days/Laskey or the senior A-Backs, or why they'd want to focus on keeping the NFL-bound receivers in check. This year though, Thomas is the main attraction in Georgia Tech's offense. Gone is the safety net of all of that veteran talent he could lean on, and which opposing coordinators had equally large (if not larger) concerns about. With all of Georgia Tech's questions at both A-Back and B-Back, the lack of experience at receiver, and the fanfare surrounding Thomas after the end of last season, it would be a surprise if the quarterback isn't the first thing that opposing coordinators are focused on taking away.

"But Joey, Marcus Mariota just won a Heisman, and he runs a spread option offense based on some of the same concepts! If he can do it, why can't Thomas?"

That's a great question, Other Joey. There's one key reason why Mariota winning the award gives me no more reason to think Thomas can:

Take a look at Oregon's pass-run balance, and compare that to Georgia Tech's. The Ducks do run the ball more than they pass it, which is a comparable point, but the difference comes when you look at just how much more they run it. Last year, Oregon had 644 rushing attempts as compared to 474 passing attempts. In other words, Oregon ran the ball 57.6% of the time. Compare that to Georgia Tech, which ran the ball 79.6% of the time, even with a couple of major weapons on the outside to throw to in Smelter and Waller. For an option quarterback to win a Heisman, he needs to be in a system that requires him to throw the ball a considerable amount. (In any option scheme, the defense is fully able to neutralize a superstar quarterback in the running game if they choose to. That means he needs to make significant contributions through the air, which would involve far more than Thomas's 1,719 yards and 206 attempts last season. Mariota ran for under 800 yards, but threw for over 4,000.) If last year wasn't a situation for Thomas to throw the ball much more than 20.4% of the time, there may never be one.

The point is this: Justin Thomas may have Heisman-level talent, but running Paul Johnson's offense correctly and defenses reacting as most would expect them to will prevent him from having Heisman-level numbers. It's that simple. If defenses focus on him (as I expect them to), and Thomas gives or pitches when he's supposed to, the team will be successful and a lot of guys will have really good-looking numbers at season's end -- just, none of them will be Heisman-level numbers.

That's my #take on this matter, what's yours? Am I right to point this out? Am I just being overly negative? Tell me why I'm wrong.