QB Lee takes the lead for Georgia Tech

Lavaedeay Montique Lee — Vad to those in a hurry — is the bright fresh face of Georgia Tech’s offense. The sophomore quarterback got his internship out of the way last season while in relief of Tevin Washington and currently is prepping himself for life as The Guy.

As his playing time and production increased the deeper the Yellow Jackets waded into last season, Lee had some tantalizing moments. Ran for 112 yards and passed for 169 in a scorefest at North Carolina. Had a passing touchdown against USC in a long-awaited bowl victory.

He certainly seems to have a hammerlock on the unmeasurables. When the Tech media-relations office surveyed its players on a multiple of topics this offseason, one question asked was who do you consider the best team leader? Lee won that one with two-thirds of the vote.

And he hasn’t even had a chance to show his best generalship yet. Last season as an understudy to Washington, Lee didn’t feel altogether comfortable unsheathing his total personality.

“You don’t want to step on people’s toes,” Lee said.

“(The high-volume, full-contact leadership trait) is going to come out sooner or later. As much as I tried to hold my emotions in my redshirt freshman year, eventually it’s all going to come out. You got to be who you are. You can’t fake it.”

Ah, for all that, Paul Johnson has underplayed Lee’s ascension to the throne. Be careful with the expectations, he warned the media during July’s ACC media gathering. Stack them too high and even solid performance will be perceived as failure, the coach said.

Johnson is ever unwilling to concede anything to a player, least of all a central starring role. Part of any coach’s job is to maintain a competitive, creative tension.

“I know coach Johnson, know the type of guy he is; he’s not going to give you anything, and I respect that,” Lee said. “Everything I’ve done since I was young I had to earn it and prove doubters wrong.”

Justin Thomas is available, too. A redshirt freshman who has speed to spare and an arm that his friends and family would tell you is undervalued.

The two of them make an interesting duet.

Crossing borders

Thomas’ decision in December 2011 to drop his commitment to Alabama and switch to Tech was bad for business. His father, Milton, owns an Alabama-based janitorial contracting company that deals with companies throughout the southeast. Know what? Some otherwise very level-headed businessmen revert to breath-holding brats when it comes to ’Bama football.

The elder Thomas explains: “One of my longtime clients, one I had for over 15 years was very upset.

“He said, ‘Why can’t you make your son go to Alabama.’

“‘I’m not going to make him do anything,’ I told him. ‘I’m not going to interfere.’

“’Well you’re the dad. You control your household. You should be able to tell him where to go.’

“Now, this was a president of a company. I thought he was joking. They gave me a 30-days notice after 15 years. That’s when the economy was going bad. In one month’s time, I lost over $20,000 in revenue. I never wanted Justin to feel bad, so I never told him.”

They are still both standing, father and son. Justin, who rushed for 151 yards and threw for 153 in leading Prattville to the Alabama Class AAAAAA championship in 2011, had been courted by the Crimson Tide for his speed. When it became clear that Alabama was considering moving him to defensive back, Thomas sought the nearest exit.

He was a multipurposed athlete growing up, a baseball player of enough promise that he had scouts sniffing around even though he had put down the bat midway through high school to specialize. And if Thomas was going to devote himself to football, it was going to be from behind center.

“First time I picked up a football, the first position I played was quarterback at age five. If I played it that long why should I change it?” he wondered.

Growing up in North Carolina, Lee always saw himself playing quarterback while dressed in powder blue. A buddy’s father was on the field crew at UNC, and after home games he would let some of the boys have the run of the place while he was working.

Lee brought a ball and his imagination.

“I’d run onto the field like I was running on for a game,” he said. “When throwing ball, I’d do the commentating: ‘Vad Lee throws it. Complete!’

“Years later I was actually doing it. Little did I know I’d be wearing another jersey.” Last season’s big game at North Carolina raised Lee’s profile immensely among Yellow Jackets followers.

He was a more recent convert to the position, a running back and all-purpose player in youth football. He switched for good just before middle school, becoming a signal caller for the Durham Eagles. From then on, playing quarterback was the only option. The position is powerfully narcotic and does not let go without a fight.

“When Vad first started passing the football he couldn’t throw a lick,” remembered his stepfather, Walter Foster. “I hung up a couple tires on a tree in the yard.

“One day he called me outside and he was hitting them on the run. And he has been a quarterback ever since.”

While Tech was in pursuit of Lee from the close of his junior year at Durham’s Hillside High (where he, too, won a state title in 2010), Lee cooled on idea of the Tar Heels. Butch Davis was in his last season there, and the NCAA was breaking out the latex gloves, preparing to inspect the program thoroughly.

Meanwhile, at Tech, “I always felt like the No. 1 guy on the board; they always treated me as part of the Georgia Tech community,” Lee said.

“I was a guy who thought he’d never go out of state, but it got complicated with the in-state schools,” he said.

The Jackets had gone on their border raids and came back with not just one, but two very stubborn young men who want nothing more than to play quarterback for them.

It’s not all about the legs

Johnson has some dangerous speed to plug into that shell game of an option offense.

Lee, certainly no snail himself, showed his nimbleness by averaging 5.7 yards a carry in 96 rushes last season.

But this Thomas fellow — a state 100-meter champion in high school (10.79) — has yet another gear that might bear some exploration. There’s fast, and, as Lee differentiates, there’s “super fast.”

“No doubt (Thomas) would beat me in foot race. I’m not even in that league,” Lee said. “Any time he has the ball in his hands and it’s time for him to run the ball it’s exciting. Even being the one competing against him, when he has the ball in his hands, I get excited as well just to see what he might do.”

While Thomas couldn’t play last season while redshirting, he stirred up some fuss last June before the start of practice. An impromptu race against Tech B-back Broderick Snoddy — himself a former high school Georgia state champ in the 100 and Tech’s record-holder in the 60 meters — drew a large audience of players.

Thomas’ explanation of his defeat: “He was in shape. I ran the first 40 and then I was through. He just kept on going.

“Probably not going to be any rematch.”

But also keep in mind one entreaty from both Lee and Thomas: Please, please do not forget about the arms.

They are on a mission to air out Johnson’s offense, to prove to the coach that the forward pass can be a more viable option within the spread option.

If they have their way, the Jackets will strenuously rehab that 2012 pass offense ranking, 115th out of 120 teams.

That crusade starts in practice, every practice. If they can’t show Johnson they can be consistent, effective and accurate throwing the ball there, they won’t get the chance on the field on game day.

“Justin is a better passer than a runner. People don’t know that, not yet anyway,” said Thomas’ father.

Added dad: “He could be our best-kept secret. Coach Johnson knows he can pass the ball.”

Converting the coach is a never-ending labor. “I’m working on it every day,” said Lee, laughing.

Refining his game

Lee already is elite. That honorific was written on the resume before his first collegiate start, when he was invited to Oregon this offseason to work the Elite 11 camp for top high school prospects.

Also spending time with quarterbacking shaman George Whitfield, Lee has been opening up to every kind of growth experience.

Working with Whitfield, he said, was almost as much about learning to think and act like a quarterback as it was about physically throwing the ball.

There are lessons everywhere, Whitfield advised him. Lee was surprised to find that when watching a movie about Shogun fighters he could learn something about playing quarterback. See the motion the warrior makes when he draws the sword hanging across his back? Think about that when you cock and throw, Whitfield said.

What position in baseball most closely compares with quarterback, Whitfield asked his pupils. The obvious answer is always pitcher.

“But he says it’s catching. When someone is stealing a base, the catcher has to make the quick, snap throw. That’s our footwork right there. The pitcher goes through a windup and all that,” Lee said. So now he watches a baseball game with a special interest in what happens behind the plate.

As for sheer presence, Lee brought that to the Flats on his first day. An emotional, encouraging sort on the sidelines, Lee has a way of speaking away from the field that gives him the air of a high-priced motivational speaker.

He talks about getting teammates to “think big.”

He unabashedly employs the phrase, “be great.”

“That’s something I tell the team and use for myself — be great at everything we do,” he said.

“I have so much confidence in myself and the team. If you ask me do you think we’re going to win every game, I’d probably say yes,” Lee said. “That’s the competitive nature in me. That’s what I want Georgia Tech to be all about.

“It’s not what I want. It’s something we need here.”

And if there is another player in the wings who is driven and talented, Lee will use that, too, as a prodding tool.

“Competition is always great,” Lee said. “It brings out in the best in people. Justin is a fast dude, so when he is breaking and making plays, I feel like I got to break and make a play. That is the competitor in me. We push each other for the better of this team.

“We’re both trying to do special things.”