A week ago, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson raved about Juanyeh Thomas after the freshman had returned a free kick 77 yards for a touchdown against Virginia.
“He’s going to return a bunch of them before he leaves,” Johnson said. “He’s pretty good.”
It turned out that Thomas needed only a week to begin to make good on Johnson’s prediction. In the first quarter Saturday, Thomas returned a UGA kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, becoming the first player in team history to return a kickoff for a touchdown in consecutive games. (Free kicks after safeties are categorized as kickoffs.)
“Give that kid credit,” UGA coach Kirby Smart said. “He made a hell of a return.”
It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown that the Bulldogs had given up since a North Carolina return for a touchdown in 2016. Thomas also became the third player (and first freshman) in school history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a season and the fifth player to do so in a career.
“It was a great individual play by him,” Johnson said.
With UGA ahead 14-0, Thomas fielded Rodrigo Blankenship’s kickoff a step deep in the end zone just outside the right hashmark. He brought the ball straight upfield then took a sharp left turn at the 7-yard line, evading two would-be tacklers, one of whom flew right past him. As he angled to the far sideline, he had two Bulldogs trying to cut him off, James Cook and Walter Grant, but Thomas was outrunning their pursuit angles and then Malachi Carter took care of Cook, knocking him out of the play with a hard shoulder.
Just before the 20, he turned around Deandre Baker, who was trying to force him back to the middle, with a stutter step. Keyon Richardson had a bead on Thomas as he crossed the 25, but Thomas accelerated and hit another gear between the 25 and 30 to lose Richardson.
He ran by Blankenship and then kept his distance on Baker, the last man with a chance to bring him down. Baker tackled him just as Thomas crossed the goal line.
“I followed Georgia’s kickoff team crashing, so I just read the kickoff team and just hit it and scored,” Thomas said.
Johnson recognized Thomas’ kickoff return ability before the season started, tabbing him as the Jackets’ specialist. He had a return against Bowling Green wiped out by a penalty and had a disastrous return against Duke, fumbling away the ball inside the Tech 10-yard line that set up the Blue Devils for a touchdown.
But his potential has become abundantly clear in the past two games, and Johnson isn’t one to lightly toss around predictions like the one he made for Thomas after the Virginia game. In just 12 games, Thomas has tied the school record for most kickoff returns for a touchdown in a career. It would be a surprise now if he didn’t leave Tech as the sole record holder.