Georgia Tech will carry 13 seniors on the roster for the season finale against Georgia on Saturday. None are as deeply identified with the program as quarterback Justin Thomas, who will play his final regular season game and make his last appearance in Sanford Stadium.
This will be the third start for Thomas in the in-state rivalry. He’s been a part of the highs; he engineered the drive that allowed the Yellow Jackets to tie the game in 2014 and eventually win it in overtime. He’s been a part of the lows; he was completely ineffective in 2015 when the Yellow Jackets produced only seven points.
How Thomas performs today will have a great impact on the legacy he leaves on The Flats. A win — the second straight in Athens — would likely elevate him to cult status. A victory would likely transform Thomas from a good player to a great one in the eyes of Georgia Tech fans.
Coach Paul Johnson said, “He’s had an outstanding career here. He’s been a big part of our success, you know, two years ago, and the MVP of the Orange Bowl game and leading the team to 11 wins and a great season. This year he’s played well. I think that he’s had a really good career here and he’s been a big part of what success we’ve had.”
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Thomas is a smart young man — he’s already graduated with a degree in business administration. He doesn’t have the most outgoing personality for a team leader; he is rather reserved when speaking to the media. But his teammates have the utmost respect for him, evidenced by the face he was the first player in school history to be voted team captain for three straight years.
Thomas is known among his teammates for being an encourager, but one who also isn’t afraid to hold someone accountable. He’s a tough cookie, too; he threw the final downfield block on Qua Searcy’s long touchdown run against Virginia.
In an offense that puts the quarterback at risk to take a pounding, Thomas has been resilient. He was dinged up last year, but started every game. In fact, he had started 35 straight games until an upper body injury suffered against North Carolina forced him out of the lineup against Virginia Tech. He will make his 37th career start on Saturday against the Bulldogs.
He has flourished in Johnson’s option attack. Thomas became the 39th player in NCAA history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 2,000 yards in their career. It’s a feat only four other ACC quarterbacks have accomplished.
His fingerprints are all over the Georgia Tech record book. He ranks 10th in career rushing with 2,360 yards, only five yards behind C.J. Williams. He ranks sixth on the career passing list with 4,485 yards – impressive considering the offense he runs. He’s tied for 11th in career rushing touchdowns with 21.
There have been many highs this year. He threw for 264 yards and ran for 195 yards against Duke, which caused Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe to marvel and remark, “He may have had his finest hour.” There was the game-winning drive he engineered to beat Boston College in the season opener in Ireland, one of three game-winning or game-tying drives he led in the final minute of a game during his career.
“All in all, he’s had a pretty good senior year,” Johnson said. “I think he’s had a little more help around him this year than a year ago, which has helped.”
Thomas now returns to the scene of his most famous comeback. It took place Nov. 29, 2015. The Yellow Jackets trailed 24-21 and took over at its own 43 yard line with 13 seconds to play. Thomas, whose fumble with four minutes left led to Georgia’s go-ahead score, was able to change the outcome with his feet. He ran 21 yards on the next play, getting just enough yardage before he steped out of bounds, to set up Harrison Butker’s game-tying 53-yard field goal. The Yellow Jackets won it in overtime.
A repeat today and Thomas will help Georgia Tech win back-to-back games in Athens for the first time since 1998 and 2000. At that’s the stuff legends are made of on The Flats.