Dogs’ Thomas has proven he belongs
The Georgia Bulldogs have experienced few embarrassing situations this football season on their way to the Southeastern Conference championship and a berth in Monday’s Rose Bowl national semifinal against Oklahoma.
Andrew Thomas endured such a moment.
Late in the first quarter of Georgia’s game at Auburn on Nov. 11, the freshman right tackle was beaten off the edge by Tigers defensive end Jeff Holland, who had a 10-yard sack of Jake Fromm on third-and-9. The Bulldogs had a 7-3 lead at the time, but Holland’s sack helped ignite Auburn, which went on to whip Georgia 40-17.
“Obviously you don’t want to get beat, but our coaches tell us to move on to the next play,” Thomas said. “Dwelling on that play wasn’t going to help us. I just wanted to make sure that if there was a next time, he wouldn’t make any plays.”
Thomas wasn’t alone in terms of struggling against Holland, an All-SEC selection who has nine sacks and four forced fumbles this season, and he wasn’t alone in struggling that afternoon inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Georgia rushed 32 times for 46 yards, failing to amass 50 rushing yards in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry for the first time in more than 50 years.
There would, of course, be a next time, as Auburn defeated Alabama in the Iron Bowl to win the Western Division and meet East champ Georgia for a rematch in the SEC championship contest in Atlanta.
The two games were night and day for Thomas, who was part of an offensive line in MercedesBenz Stadium on Dec. 2 that helped pound out 238 rushing yards on 51 carries, an average of 5.8 yards per pop after a 1.4-yard clip the first time around.
“As an O-line collectively, we felt like they demoralized us in the first game,” Thomas said. “We watched a lot of film and studied a lot of technique, and we came out with a different level of physicality.”
A 6-foot-5, 338-pounder from Atlanta’s Pace Academy, Thomas was a consensus top-100 national prospect in the 2017 signing class. His athleticism was evident as soon as he set foot on campus, which reflected that he played both ways at Pace and had 59 tackles as a senior.
Thomas was among 13 instate prospects who signed with the Bulldogs, and it was clear he arrived having already formed a bond with coach Kirby Smart.
“He majored in business, and that’s what I wanted to do, too,” Thomas said, “so he pitched that really hard. He also said I had the chance to come in and compete early if I was ready.”
When he started getting more and more first-team reps in August, Thomas realized he had a shot.
“It’s really amazing how far this has all come — coming in as a high school athlete and then starting as a true freshman,” Thomas said. “It’s magical. I started to get comfortable around the Mississippi State game.
“I had been adjusting to having to play a different defense every game on top of the speed of the game, and around Mississippi State was when I started to hit my stride.”
Georgia was hitting its stride as well, lambasting Mississippi State 31-3 on Sept. 23 and following that up with drubbings of Tennessee, 41-0, Vanderbilt, 45-14, and Missouri, 53-28. The Bulldogs had never won their first four league games by 25 or more points, and Smart was flowing with midseason praise for Thomas.
“He’s a freshman out there playing in what I think is the toughest conference in the country,” Smart said. “He is holding up. He is holding his own. We haven’t put him in a lot of really tough positions. We try to avoid that, whether we cover him up — and being able to run the ball helps with that — but he is mature beyond his years.
“He is very understanding of how important practice is, which I think allows him to play well.”
Thomas is quick to credit Smart, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman for his development, and he recognizes the valuable leadership lessons that have been provided by senior left tackle Isaiah Wynn. The undersized Wynn is a former guard, but Chaney said this past week that the play of both tackles is a major reason Georgia currently finds itself in Pasadena, Calif.
It did not take long for Thomas to form bonds with a pair of offensive classmates, Fromm and third-string tailback D’Andre Smith, who have been instrumental in helping the Bulldogs achieve tremendous success.
“It caught me off guard in the App State game when we put Jake in, but he’s a commander of the game. Everybody follows him,” Thomas said. “For me, there was so much pressure early on, because our offensive line had been ridiculed last year, but I think we handled that really well.
“We’ve all done very well and have played really well together.”
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield nearly missed all of the Rose Bowl media events before electing to speak Saturday. Mayfield said he developed flu-like symptoms over the Christmas break, but he has practiced every day with the Sooners in Pasadena.
“I’m not dying, but I don’t feel 100 percent right now,” Mayfield said. “Yesterday I felt great. It was the best I’ve felt in a while, but yelling this morning at practice did not help.”
Mayfield added that most of his Rose Bowl trip has been spent in his hotel room, but he did show a little spunk when asked about Georgia being the slight favorite.
“We’re not an underdog,” he said. “We’re not an underdog.”
Coley staying put
James Coley, who’s in his second season as Georgia’s receivers coach, had a chance to leave for Jimbo Fisher’s new staff at Texas A&M. Coley potentially could have been the offensive coordinator for the Aggies, but he elected to remain in Athens.
“I think Jimbo is going to do a great job at Texas A&M, but I love the guy who’s the head coach here,” Coley told reporters. “I love where we are as a program.”
Georgia freshman Andrew Thomas won a starting job at right tackle during preseason camp and has retained it ever since. The Bulldogs (12-1) face Oklahoma (12-1) in Monday’s Rose Bowl national semifinal in Pasadena, Calif.