Georgia Tech believes in QB Justin Thomas; Ole Miss' Nkemdiche an offensive weapon
Justin Thomas often goes door-to-door in his hometown of Prattville, Ala., as a Jehovah's Witness. Over the years, the Georgia Tech star quarterback has helped many from all different faiths come to embrace the religion. That is except for one group: Catholics.
Thomas will have a chance to get their attention Saturday though when he and the 14th-ranked Georgia Tech visit ailing No. 8 Notre Dame in a game with College Football Playoff implications. "We just got to go out there and make ourselves believers," Thomas tells The Inside Read of beating the Fighting Irish.
Thomas convinced the Georgia Tech faithful after he led the Yellow Jackets to the ACC title last season and an Orange Bowl victory in his first season as a starter. He did so behind eighth-year coach Paul Johnson's patented triple-option attack that's more pass-friendly than it's even been thanks to the 5' 11", 191-pound Thomas.
Last season, the redshirt junior not only rushed for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns, he also threw for 1,719 yards and 18 touchdowns with just six interceptions. "As long as we keep completing the ball, the more opportunities he's going to give us to throw the ball," Thomas says of Johnson. "If you're not going to complete it, he's not going to keep throwing."
When Thomas first started being recruited out of pass-heavy Prattville High, where he won a state title as a senior in 2011, he didn't even have Georgia Tech on his list. He wanted to play quarterback in college and only considered schools that would give him that opportunity, eliminating those that wanted him as wide receiver or defensive back.
The likes of Alabama, Florida State and LSU all promised to give Thomas a chance at quarterback, but also reserved the right to move him to another position if it didn't work out as a signal-caller. Georgia Tech, however, had made a recruiting pitch unlike any other school.
Johnson never even talked to Thomas about playing another position besides quarterback. "That stood out tremendously," Thomas says.
With his interest piqued, Thomas began studying the Yellow Jackets' unique triple-option offense. He quickly realized the scheme's reads were the same he made in high school with the only difference being not taking snaps out of the shotgun. "It can be a big-play offense even though it doesn't look like it," Thomas says.
Thomas has thrived at Georgia Tech with his dual-threat ability. He's also learned to reduce the number of hits he takes. But first defenders have to catch Thomas. He won the Class 6A 100-meter dash state championship his senior year at Prattville after deciding to take up track just a month earlier.
Thomas has been timed as fast as 10.5 seconds in the 100 meters. He also showed his elusiveness in Georgia Tech's 65-10 rout of Tulane last Saturday with a nifty spin move and juke that his teammates believe was better than Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller's heralded highlight against Virginia Tech on Labor Day.
"They're probably a little biased," Thomas says with a chuckle.
Thomas is serious about being a Jehovah's Witness. He says many he talks to during his door-to-door visits don't realize he's one of college football's most dynamic players.
Nonetheless, Thomas says his efforts are often well-received. "Everybody kind of understands what we're doing and preaching," Thomas says. "Nobody really gives you a nasty attitude."
Thomas is anticipating a hostile crowd though Saturday at Notre Dame. He's ready to make Fighting Irish fans believers of him and Georgia Tech's triple-option offense.
Says Thomas with a laugh, "I'm going to see what I can do."
Pouya Dianat for Sports Illustrated
Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche Rebels' secret offensive weapon
Mississippi star defensive end Robert Nkemdiche likes to constantly remind Rebels offensive coordinator Dan Werner that he can play offense. Not that Werner has forgotten that Nkemdiche has scored touchdowns both times he has touched the ball offensively this season.
"He just loves it," Werner tells The Inside Read.
Entering the No. 15 Rebels' SEC West clash at second-ranked Alabama on Saturday night, the 6' 4", 296-pound Nkemdiche has had a small role in the Rebels' short-yardage and goal-line package. The junior's first touchdown came in the Rebels' season-opening 76-3 rout of Tennessee-Martin when he lined up as a fullback on third-and-2 and caught a play-action pass that he took 31 yards to the end zone.
"It just shows you how fast and athletic he is," Werner says.
Nkemdiche's touchdown catch was also meant to send a message to Mississippi's opponents this season. "We wanted to let everybody know that he's not just back there to block," Werner says. "Most defenses see a defensive lineman back there and they're thinking, 'O.K., they're just going to ram it right up the middle.'"
As impressive as Nkemdiche's first score was, Werner was in even more awe about the 1-yard touchdown run Nkemdiche had on third-and-goal during Mississippi's 73-21 romp over Fresno State last Saturday. "We actually missed the blocking scheme and a guy came through scot-free and he just ran him over," Werner says. "That's why he's back there, not because he can catch a flat route. We feel like he can run over people."
Werner credits Rebels coach Hugh Freeze for allowing Nkemdiche to play offense. Werner has coached at other programs in the past that had defensive lineman with similar athletic ability to Nkemdiche, but they weren't allowed to take offensive snaps for fear they would get hurt.
"When your head coach is willing to do that type of stuff, it makes it fun," Werner says. "The guys enjoy it. If I'm a big-time defensive lineman coming out of high school, then hey man I may go to Ole Miss and get to run the ball or catch a touchdown pass."
This isn't the first time that Mississippi has featured Nkemdiche in its offense. He had five rushing attempts for 32 yards in two games as a freshman in 2013, but didn't score a touchdown. "It makes people prepare and it helps us score touchdowns," Werner says of Nkemdiche's offensive moonlighting. "It's really a no-brainer."
That's why Werner intends to continue featuring Nkemdiche on offense. But Werner is cryptic about disclosing any further specifics. "We could use him at any time," Werner says. "People better prepare for everything. That's all I can say."
Stephen Lew/Icon SMI
Duke's Montgomery studying to become a head coach
Scottie Montgomery had coached in a Super Bowl, was working with up-and-coming wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and making the most money in his career. So he can understand why many might have thought he was delusional when he left the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 after three seasons as their wide receivers coach to take the same job at his alma mater Duke. But Montgomery did so in hopes of eventually realizing one of his career goals.
"I want to be a head coach," Montgomery tells The Inside Read.
Now entering his second season as Duke's associate head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Montgomery is starting to garner attention as a potential head coaching candidate and someday maybe even the successor to eighth-year Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe.
It's been quite a journey for the 37-year-old Montgomery, who never even envisioned attending Duke until the Shelby, N.C., native scored well on the PSAT in high school. "I'm really appreciative of what this university's been able to do for me," Montgomery says.
After starring for Duke as a wide receiver from 1996-99, Montgomery spent four years playing in the NFL. In 2006, he became the Blue Devils' wide receivers coach and was retained when David Cutcliffe was hired two years later.
Cutcliffe has resuscitated Duke, once one of college football's biggest laughingstocks, and for the first time in school history led the program to three straight bowls. Montgomery left for the Steelers two seasons before that streak started, only after he previously turned down other NFL offers at Cutcliffe's recommendation.
Yet when Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin called, Cutcliffe told Montgomery to accept. "To be doing exactly what you want to do, you've got to be around the right people," Montgomery says.
While in Pittsburgh, Montgomery worked with Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, who was the Steelers' offensive coordinator for two of Montgomery's seasons, including the team's Super Bowl appearance in 2010. Montgomery's other season came under the tutelage of current Steelers offensive coordinator and former Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley.
"Thank goodness that I've been placed around not only good people from a head coaching standpoint, but assistants that have really, really helped me develop and grow," Montgomery says.
During Montgomery's three seasons coaching wide receivers for the Steelers, he and Cutcliffe still talked several times a month. Eventually Cutcliffe started recruiting Montgomery to return to Duke.
The opportunity was attractive to Montgomery because he knew he needed to gain experience coaching quarterbacks to eventually be a head coach. He didn't know of a better coach to learn that from than Cutcliffe, who coached Peyton and Eli Manning in college.
Cutcliffe assured Montgomery that he would teach him all he knew about quarterbacks. After a week of discussions, Montgomery finally mustered the courage to tell Tomlin and Steelers owner Dan Rooney he was returning to Duke. "It was one of the hardest things I had to do," Montgomery says.
Montgomery has never regretted his decision. This is his second season as the Blue Devils' play-caller after being promoted to his current positions last year.
Montgomery's offensive philosophy centers around the inside zone, which he learned while playing for the Denver Broncos from 2001-02. He's also added the zone read and exterior runs to his scheme.
It's a system that Cutcliffe has allowed Montgomery to run freely. The Blue Devils had a 9-4 record last season and finished 40th in the FBS in scoring offense during Montgomery's play-calling debut. "All he does is teach you for the next position," Montgomery says of Cutcliffe. "He does a really good job of making sure you're prepared for that time."
Since returning to Duke, Montgomery's had non-FBS opportunities to achieve his goal of being a head coach, but they weren't the right fit. "It's going to be hard for me to leave here," Montgomery says. "I love this place."
And perhaps Montgomery won't have to leave.
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