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"Smooth" Justin Thomas and improved team ball security have Georgia Tech off to a 5-0 start. The Yellow Jackets face a pivotal ACC Coastal showdown with Duke on Saturday.

By Brian Hamilton
October 09, 2014

The Georgia Tech offense and scout team defense have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Mostly, the scout teamers hate conditioning. And that crew can earn reprieve from running if they somehow, some way, manage to jar the ball loose during practice drills. The consequence of that ball hitting the turf is a bunch of up-downs for all the offensive regulars, so there’s a considerable conflict of interest at play, which can make everyone very mad at one another.

Especially when coaches count fumbles even after the play is whistled dead, with the ball considered live until the carrier returns it to a manager. The scraping and punching can continue to that point, which is annoying and demands that extra precautions be taken.

“I know me, as an older guy, I try to hurry up and throw it back to the managers, so I don’t cause everybody to do up-downs and everything,” senior running back Synjyn Days said. “At the beginning, it seems kind of tedious -- why are you knocking the ball out after the whistle? But it has a deeper meaning than what we see.”

It means the surprising Yellow Jackets are one of the most over-protective units anywhere, an emphasis on security that is paying off. Georgia Tech, thought by many to be a prime candidate to occupy the subbasement of the ACC, is 5-0 for only the fifth time in the past 57 years. Heading into a game against defending Coastal Division champion Duke on Saturday, the program occupies a spot in the AP top 25 rankings -- No. 22 -- for the first time in three years. The triple option offense is humming along behind a blink-quick, ascendant sophomore quarterback known as “Smooth,” but plenty of others have stepped in to help guide the Yellow Jackets to their hot start, too.

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Through five games, Georgia Tech has committed just four turnovers. Only five teams in the country have been better protecting the football. It’s a tremendous improvement on the rate of miscues from last season -- the team’s 24 total turnovers tied for 87th nationally -- and it’s especially notable for how it enhances the burden on opposing defenses and offenses to maximize efficiency. The Yellow Jackets control the clock as usual, ranking 14th overall in time of possession. That Georgia Tech rarely gives teams anything easy compounds the pressure on the other side to make the most of what few chances it gets.

“It’s very difficult to take an option offense and be as secure with the ball as they have been,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Hats off to them. I mean, that is extremely well coached. That ball is in the air, it’s being handled, there’s an exchange where they’re reading whether to give it or to keep it, a pitch -- there’s a lot of things happening with the ball.”

Just not a lot of it rolling around on the ground. It’s a clutch philosophy embedded deeply into the program. Senior running back Zach Laskey recalled one of his teammates citing a credo early in their careers that he found both a bit morbid and hilarious: “Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

The quote is attributed to a former Georgia Tech coach who won 102 games while leading the program from 1904-1919, a fellow named John Heisman. “We take that to heart,” Laskey said. “It’s been something that’s been drilled into our heads. If I ever have a fumble in practice, I immediately punish myself and go back and do push-ups until the next play starts.”

date opponent result
Aug. 30 Wofford W, 38-19
Sept. 6 at Tulane W, 38-21
Sept. 13 Georgia Southern W, 42-38
Sept. 20 at Virginia Tech W, 27-24
Oct. 4 Miami W, 28-17
Oct. 11 Duke ?
Oct. 18 at North Carolina ?
Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh ?
Nov. 1 Virginia ?
Nov. 8 at North Carolina State ?
Nov. 15 Clemson ?
Nov. 29 at Georgia ?

Georgia Tech is certainly no different than any team in emphasizing ball security, but it has its own incentives and consequences to underscore the importance. The daily tug-of-war between the scout team defense and the first-string offense is but one example. A different practice drill involves the Yellow Jackets’ backs negotiating a stretch of rope mesh while assistant coach Bryan Cook punches at the ball -- while wearing a boxing glove.

If one player fumbles during that drill, every player does five up-downs. “It’s accountability for everybody,” Days said. If no one fumbles, then the coaches must do 10 push-ups. This is essentially the opportunity for the players to punch back a little. “I make sure (Cook) does all his push-ups,” Days said. “Like I’m pushing him down to the ground, making sure he’s getting a full extension on his arms and everything.”

Of the team’s four turnovers this season, just one is an interception. No surprise, really, that Georgia Tech’s rise can be traced most specifically to what quarterback Justin Thomas has done with the ball in his hands.

Thomas, a 5-foot-11, 189-pound redshirt sophomore, rushed 33 times and threw just 17 passes as a backup in 2013. When incumbent starter Vad Lee decided to transfer in January, ultimately landing at James Madison, it was a tense moment for a program. It also appears to have been a blessing in disguise: While Lee struggled to manage the complicated scheme, Thomas is a soft-spoken, unshakeable, ideal fit. He leads the team in rushing (94 yards per game) and has seven touchdown passes in 72 attempts. That isn’t a robust enough sample size to qualify for the national rankings, but Thomas’ passing efficiency rating of 156.6 would tie him for 17th in the country. “They got them a true option quarterback,” Cutcliffe said.

During his sophomore basketball season at Prattville (Ala.) High School, Thomas was appraised very simply by teammate Qushaun Lee, who now plays linebacker for Arkansas State. You do everything so smooth, Lee told Thomas, so I’m going to start calling you Smooth. Thomas said the nickname carried over to Georgia Tech because it was part of his Twitter handle, and that’s essentially how all his teammates knew him coming in. “We don’t even call him ‘Justin’ anymore,” Days said. “We’re just like, ‘Smooth, what’s up.’”

Teammates are indeed struck by Thomas’ composure. During a Sept. 20 win over Virginia Tech, the first-year starter entered the huddle and said, I’m going to put you guys on my back and we’re going to do this. None of the Yellow Jackets flinched. Thomas then threw the game-tying touchdown pass with two minutes left before leading a drive to a game-winning field goal as time expired in a stunning 27-24 road win.

Typically, Thomas is no “hoorah” guy, as he put it. In high-stakes moments he generally takes a step back from the huddle, takes a few deep breaths and then just goes to work. “It’s just staying calm and not being too panicky,” Thomas said. “That’s when you mess up, when you try to do too much at one time. As long as you’re moving the ball, you’ll keep the rest of the team calm.”

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In the estimation of at least one veteran, the calm, get-it-done demeanor represents precisely what has been missing in recent years.

“We’re able to finish the ball games when we need to the most,” Laskey said. “We need a turnover, our defense gets us a turnover. After the turnover, we need a touchdown, we drive down and score a touchdown. That’s the biggest thing about this football team. It’s a special thing to have. It’s very hard to get. The past three years, there have probably been about six or seven games we’ve had the opportunity to win, it came down to the last minute and we haven’t been able to make that play.”

For his daily routine, the standout quarterback for one of the nation’s nine unbeaten teams jogs to class, gets a bite to eat after that and then heads directly to the football facility. As a result, Thomas said, there haven’t been too many well-wishers clogging his path after the team’s fast start. Laskey, though, duly noticed the raucous atmosphere and white-out by fans for the Miami game last weekend, a 28-17 victory. The only other time Laskey could recall a scene approaching that was for a visit by Clemson three seasons ago when he was a freshman.

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He reasoned that people, not surprisingly, want to see a team that’s going to win, and back-to-back seven-win seasons might have muted enthusiasm. There’s a good chance of the renewed fervor lingering, though. Georgia Tech’s next five opponents have a combined record of 15-11. The end-of-season couplet featuring a visit from Clemson and a road trip to Georgia will be taxing, but until then the Yellow Jackets have a favorable track, especially if the offense remains as flummoxing and efficient as it has been.

Georgia Tech will have to find a way to run on something other than the disrespect it felt from the grave preseason prognostications. “Every player has their own style,” Laskey said, “but it ticked me off.” Everyone is noticing the Yellow Jackets now, with far fewer doubters remaining. The players will have to somehow maintain their restless edge in the face of success, but if the season to date is any indication, they are pretty good at holding on to things.

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