Dogs’ Thomas has proven he be­longs

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - BY DAVID PASCHALL STAFF WRITER

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.”

May­field speaks

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.”

ANDY HAR­RI­SON/GE­OR­GIA PHOTO

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.

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