It’s all part of the job in coach Paul Johnson’s spread option offense.
Quarterbacks carry the ball as much as running backs. They are tackled lightly in practice, even during the season, to get ready for the hammering they take in games.
“No big deal,” Thomas said Tuesday. “I’m just as big as anyone out there. I’m 190. It’s all the same. I’m just going out there playing football, something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. I’m ready.”
When the Yellow Jackets open the season Saturday at home against Wofford, Thomas will be Johnson’s most recent full-time starting quarterback, following Josh Nesbitt, Tevin Washington and Vad Lee.
All have stayed relatively healthy. Nesbitt’s season-ending injury, a broken arm in November 2010, occurred as he tried to tackle a Virginia Tech player following an interception.
“If you go back and look, we’ve been here six years, and it’s the same party line every year — that guys are going to get knocked out and you need to have two or three of them with the licks they take,” Johnson said. “To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t had one knocked out yet.”
The 5-foot-11 Thomas, listed at 185 pounds by the school, easily beat out Tim Byerly for the job in spring and summer practices. Johnson says that Thomas has proven quick enough to compensate for an undersized frame.
“Can Justin Thomas, at 185, do the same things that Josh Nesbitt, at 220, did on short yardage? Probably not,” Johnson said. “But if you’re good at reading (the defense) and you’re good at doing other things, you don’t have to. If we call a ‘follow’ play, J.T. ain’t going to go, ‘Oh, no.’ He’s going to run it.”
Thomas will run an offense that’s finished among the nation’s top six in rushing during each of its six years under Johnson, and the coach is again returning to his playbook roots.
Lee, last year’s starter, occasionally took snaps in a shotgun formation to take advantage of his passing arm, but that approach has been scrapped by Johnson to best use Thomas’ skills as a perimeter runner and passer.
Thomas’ primary asset is speed. He won the 100 meters with a time of 10.79 seconds among Alabama’s top three high school classifications. In 33 attempts last year for the Jackets, he averaged 7.1 yards per carry in 33 rushing attempts.
“I think we’re pretty good at what we do,” Johnson said. “Contrary to popular opinion, you can’t run the BYU passing offense one week and then transition to what we do and then the next week (use a) run zone read. You can do it, but you’re not going to be any good at it. So it’s like you want to get good at something.”
Georgia Tech, which went 7-6 last year, is one of only 11 FBS schools that don’t have a current quarterback with a career start. Thomas played in 10 games last year, Byerly in four.
“We totally support each other,” Thomas said. “Tim’s got my back and I’ve got his. We just want to win.”
Johnson says that Thomas has the skills and smarts needed to help the Jackets do what they do best — control time of possession and wear down the defense.
“Depending on how they’re playing and how you block it and how you change things, you’ve got to be good at the fundamentals or it doesn’t matter,” Johnson said. “If you can’t read the thing and you can’t keep the ball off the ground, it doesn’t matter.”