Experience around Tech’s quarterback will be key in 2017

During pregame warm-ups, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) gets prepared for their rivalry football game against the Georgia at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, November 26, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia Tech will have a new face as its starting quarterback in 2017.

The last time a first-year starter took over behind center for Tech … things went well.

Though he received an ample amount of playing time the season before, Justin Thomas stepped into the starter’s role in 2014 and helped lead the Yellow Jackets to 11 wins and an Orange Bowl victory.

It hasn’t always worked out that way.

In 2008, Paul Johnson’s first year coaching Tech, Joshua Nesbitt struggled in the offense on the way to a 7-4 record as a starter. He missed games against Gardner-Webb and Duke because of injury. Against Gardner-Webb, the Jackets failed to eclipse 200 total yards and needed a blocked field-goal attempt by Derrick Morgan to escape with victory.

The following year — with a season of experience under his belt and a talented group around him — Nesbitt lead Tech to an 11-3 record and the ACC championship.

Tevin Washington first got meaningful playing time in 2010 when Nesbitt went down with an injury at Virginia Tech. Once he took over, Washington wasn’t bad statistically, but Tech lost three of its final four games.

“Pretty much just staying calm, understanding pressure situations and staying calm and being able to execute what we do on offense,” Washington said about the challenges of his first time as a starter. “You can’t get too caught up in the emotions of the game because the highs and lows of the game come. It’s understanding that there’s going to be good and bad but staying even-keeled throughout.”

A season later, Washington led the Jackets to a 6-0 start and later beat No. 6 Clemson before finishing with a respectable 8-5 season.

Vad Lee suffered through a 7-6 season in 2013 while he struggled tremendously to get a grasp of Johnson’s option offense. He transferred the next year.

Examining Nesbitt, Washington and Lee’s first-year seasons reveals some alarming statistics to go with a 15-13 record. They threw 15 touchdowns compared with 17 interceptions and combined to complete 44.6 percent of their passes. In 447 carries, they averaged 3.6 yards per carry.

“It’s big,” Tim Byerly, who played quarterback at Tech from 2013-15, said about having experience around the offense. “The responsibility of the quarterback is to do their job and make sure everyone else is doing their job. If you have some (experienced) guys, especially on the periphery, you still want to know they’re doing the right things. But it takes a little less worry off your back to kind of fine-tune your game more and pay attention to what’s really happening in the box and not worry about what everyone else is doing.”

Thomas’ 2014 has served as the outlier among the others. His 153.9 passer rating was the best of any quarterback under Johnson until he broke that mark in 2016. He ran and passed for more than 1,000 yards and finished with 18 passing touchdowns compared with only six interceptions. While the reason he outperformed the others could appear to just be a talent difference from afar, the biggest factor may have been something Tech will also benefit from this season — experience around the quarterback.

In 2014, Thomas had three NFL draft picks around him — wide receivers Darren Waller and DeAndre Smelter and offensive lineman Shaq Mason. Joining that talent were B-backs Zack Laskey and Synjyn Days, who both signed as undrafted free agents, and senior A-backs Charles Perkins, Deon Hill, Tony Zenon and B.J. Bostic. After all of that experience left, Thomas and the Jackets had a disastrous 3-9 record in 2015.

Now, with a first-year starter waiting to take control in 2017, he’ll have many of the same advantages Thomas had in 2014. Tech will return eight of its offensive starters, 91 percent of its receiving yardage and 57 percent of its rushing yardage.

Washington, who saw his passing stats drop significantly in 2012 after Stephen Hill was drafted, also feels the experience around is vital.

“I think it’s big because they’ve been through it,” Washington said. “They’re able to pick guys up. One of the biggest things underestimated is the mental capacity of it. You have to mentally know that there’s going to be some big hits that you’ll take, some mental lashes from coaches.”

While potential starters Matthew Jordan and TaQuon Marshall have had some experience at quarterback as a backup, redshirt freshmen Jay Jones and Lucas Johnson also have a chance to grab the position. As players who ran a spread-style offense in high school, Jones and Johnson will face the same challenges that Byerly did.

“I think the biggest change for me upfront was getting under center,” Byerly said. “Getting the snap was the first major hurdle. But then the first noticeable difference was the fact that everything happens quicker under center. It’s a different angle of a read.”

Now as a graduate assistant coach for Tech, Washington gets the opportunity to forward some of his knowledge to the next man under center. He’ll have one key focus for them in the fall before things get heated up.

“The main thing is making sure those guys are consistent and building them up, making sure they don’t get too down on themselves,” Washington said. “Practice is practice; you go out there to learn. The learning process … sometimes those guys get beat up mentally about it. We just have to get them to understand and recognize what we’re trying to accomplish on each play.”

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