Having played alongside Jemea Thomas since the 2011 season, Georgia Tech linebacker Quayshawn Nealy has witnessed the Thomas highlight reel up close.
There was, for instance, his performance in the ACC championship game last year, when Thomas made eight tackles and reeled in one of the most memorable interceptions in school history, a diving, one-handed snag that gave the Yellow Jackets one final chance at a comeback against Florida State.
In that game, Nealy said, “(Thomas’) shoulder was all messed up. It still is messed up to this day. But the way he came down and slung his body around and knocked people out with his little 185-, 190- (pound body), the guy is just a great player to be around.”
That said, Nealy has not seen anything like what Thomas has done lately.
Said Nealy, “I feel like he’s at his best.”
Since coaches moved Thomas from cornerback to safety for the BYU game to better utilize his playmaking ability, Thomas has been on a tear. In the four games since, he has 33 total tackles, two for loss, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups.
He was named ACC defensive back of the week in the Jackets’ past two games, against Virginia and Pittsburgh. Against Virginia, his 12 solo tackles were the most by a Tech defender since 2003.
“I’m just trying to do what I’m told and trying to make this last year something to remember,” Thomas said.
Tech plays No. 8 Clemson Thursday night in Death Valley. It was against the Tigers two years ago that Thomas first announced his presence with two interceptions and a forced fumble in the Jackets’ 31-17 upset at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Anything similar would be helpful against the Tigers, No. 15 in the country in scoring offense at 39.8 points per game.
Playing safety has enabled Thomas to showcase two strengths – tackling ability and vision. At safety, Thomas can shoot out of the secondary to crumple ball carriers in run support. His ability to decode plays before they unfold is uncanny.
Said cornerback Louis Young, “The game is so easy to him.”
Thomas credits his video study of opponents for complimenting his instincts.
“If you watch film, you know what you’re going to do ahead of time, so it feels like it slows the game down if you know what’s coming at you already,” he said.
His experience and grasp of the game have allowed coaches to shift him around. Coaches will take him from safety and use him at nickel cornerback, which puts him closer to the line of scrimmage.
“Sometimes he’s in the box like a linebacker, too,” defensive backs coach Joe Speed said. “I’m sure if we asked him to go to the defensive line, he’d do that as well.”
Along with defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, Thomas is in the running to become Tech’s first All-ACC defensive player since linebacker Julian Burnett in 2011. Two scouting experts, Tony Pauline and Steve Muench, rate Thomas as a late-round draft prospect. His versatility is a plus, but his size – 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds – and speed are question marks.
“What I do like about Thomas is he’s a smart football player, he plays the ball well, tackles well,” said Muench, of ESPN.
If Thomas needs a reference, he’s got plenty of coaches and teammates ready to vouch for him.
“He’s a selfless player, warrior mentality,” Speed said. “We’re really fortunate that he’s willing to take on any challenge that we give him.”