November 24, 2018 Athens - Georgia Tech defensive back Juanyeh Thomas (28) runs for one hundred yards touchdown during the second half in a NCAA college football game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, November 24, 2018. Georgia won 45 - 21 over the Georgia Tech. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Player to watch this spring: Safety Juanyeh Thomas

The start of Georgia Tech’s spring practice is less than a week away, scheduled to begin on the morning of March 26.

The series of Yellow Jackets players to watch in new coach Geoff Collins’ first spring practice continues with safety Juanyeh Thomas, a sophomore from Niceville, Fla.

What he’s done so far

Thomas didn’t play a great deal on defense behind starting free safety Malik Rivera but marked himself a star in the making with his special-teams play. In consecutive games (Virginia and Georgia), Thomas returned two kicks for touchdowns (one was a kickoff, the other a free kick after a safety), which tied the school career record. He also became just the third player in Tech history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns (the free kick is considered a kickoff) in a single season and the first freshman to do so.

He’s going to return a bunch of them before he leaves,” former coach Paul Johnson said after the Virginia game. “He’s pretty good.”

Thomas also had a third kickoff return for a score that was negated by a penalty. Beyond that, however, Thomas’ instincts and playmaking ability (he also returned an interception 95 yards for a touchdown) have given reason to believe that he could be a marquee player at free safety, as well. He was tutored for a season by Rivera, the grad transfer who helped him learn the nuances of preparation and playing the position.

Thomas’ leadership on the team was recognized in his being named a co-captain for one of the teams assembled to compete through the offseason. Offensive-line coach Brent Key, who was assigned to the team, gave Thomas a pat on the back with a tweet that read, “The best thing about a new job is the relationships you build with players you don’t coach everyday. After one month back HOME at GT, I can’t say enough about @Juanyehthomas1.”


Why this spring is important

As a new era begins at Tech, Thomas has the opportunity to help lead the Jackets into it. As a sophomore who has been certified as a team leader and one whose playing ability is likewise obvious, Thomas could emerge as a focal point for the defense and team.

He’ll first have to do the work on the practice field, learn Collins’ defense and earn his practice repetitions and spot on the depth chart. He’ll likewise need to stay healthy. But as a new team looks for leadership and production, Thomas can establish himself as one who can provide both.


What his role could be

While there is plenty of talent at the safety group, Thomas is a strong candidate to win one of the safety jobs. He’ll likely contend with returning starter Tariq Carpenter, Christian Campbell, Kaleb Oliver, Avery Showell and Jarett Cole. Early-enrollee freshman Jordan Huff could play at safety, too.

Beyond that, as the Jackets bring back only three full-time starters on defense (linebacker David Curry, cornerback Tre Swilling and Carpenter) and will be learning a new scheme while the offense undergoes its own significant transformation, Collins and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker could use some playmakers.

Tech could use Thomas plenty. Besides safety, Thomas would seem the logical choice to continue returning kickoffs and possibly take on punt returns (which he also did on a part-time basis last season). Collins had ample success in the return game at Temple, returning two kickoffs and four punts (one was blocked) for touchdowns in his two seasons in Philadelphia.

If nothing else, he can serve as another challenge to the validity of recruiting rankings. By the measurements of the 247Sports Composite, Thomas was ranked the No. 1,470 prospect in his class, the No. 136 cornerback and the No. 234 player in the state of Florida.

Quotable

A member of Paul Johnson’s staff:

“Juanyeh is a guy that no doubt is going to step up and be a great one.”

The series so far:

Tight end Tyler Davis

Quarterback Lucas Johnson

Linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling

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