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January 12, 2012
Thomas proving Ga. Tech WRs can thrive in NFL
One of the nation's toughest college football recruiting challenges may have just gotten a little bit easier.
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas' breakthrough effort Sunday in the Denver Broncos' 29-23 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't merely advance his team to the next round of the playoffs.
It also signaled that a wide receiver can succeed at the highest level after playing in Georgia Tech's run-oriented option attack.
"I'm so happy for him," Georgia Tech receivers coach Buzz Preston said. "He could have listened to the people telling him, 'You need to transfer out. This offense isn't going to get you to the NFL,' and that kind of stuff, but that's a bunch of garbage. No offense is going to guarantee you get to the NFL. It's all about having a goal and being willing to work and doing whatever it takes to prepare yourself to reach that goal."
Thomas, the 22nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, beat the Steelers with an 80-yard touchdown reception that capped a performance in which he caught four passes for 204 yards.
His emergence arrives at an ideal time for Georgia Tech, which has run the ball on more than 80 percent of its snaps during Paul Johnson's four-year coaching tenure. With Stephen Hill's surprising decision to forgo his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, the Yellow Jackets are without a single returning wideout who caught a pass this season.
Georgia Tech has thrown the ball between 12 and 13 times per game in each of Johnson's four years on the job. In every one of those seasons, Georgia Tech has attempted the fewest passes of any non-academy FBS program.
That formula has helped Georgia Tech continue its string of 15 consecutive bowl bids - including an Orange Bowl appearance in the 2009 season - but it hasn't made it easy to attract top-flight receivers.
"My friends were all saying things like, 'You're not going to get any catches, you're not going to have any stats' and blah-blah-blah,'' said Georgia Tech wide receiver Darren Waller, who just completed his freshman season. "But once you get inside the program and practice every day and see how much you work and how much we put into the passing game in practice, you understand.''
The key is to get those guys inside the program.
[ More Georgia Tech coverage: JacketsOnline.com ]
Hill, the nation's No. 99 receiver in the 2009 recruiting class, is the only top-100 receiving prospect to sign with Georgia Tech since Johnson's arrival. That trend likely will continue this year.
The irony of the situation is that two former Georgia Tech receivers are making headlines in the NFL. Thomas' game-winning play came on the same weekend that All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson caught 12 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in the Detroit Lions' 45-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Georgia Tech's current coaching staff can't take credit for Calvin Johnson, who won the 2006 Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top collegiate receiver while playing in a more conventional offense under former Yellow Jackets coach Chan Gailey.
But they can point to Thomas as evidence that Georgia Tech's option attack doesn't necessarily preclude a wide receiver from a pro career.
Preston even argues that it might even help a receiver's pro prospects in some regards.
"The NFL gets to see every aspect of your game,'' Preston said. "How do you get off a bump-and-run? That's always the worry in the NFL. Can he get off a jam? They get to see that [from Georgia Tech receivers] because we see a lot of pure man-to-man press. Can he get by people? They can judge your speed better because you're running deep routes, so they can see if you can get by people and catch the deep ball. ... Can you get open on your own? It's like basketball. Can a guy create his own shot or create his own route? Can he get open against man-to-man coverage? The NFL has a better chance to observe all those things they really want to see.
"Sometimes if you're in an offense where they're throwing all those quick passes, you're catching them and getting big gains, but you're not doing anything deep so they don't have a great judge [of what you can do].''
Georgia Tech's emphasis on the deep ball certainly is one selling point. The Yellow Jackets averaged 11.1 yards per pass attempt this season to lead all FBS programs, which marked the second time in the last three years they've topped the nation in that category.
Hill collected 28 receptions for 820 yards for an average of 29.3 yards per catch, the highest among any of the nation's top 100 receivers. He is projected as a third-round draft pick by nfldraftscout.com.
During Georgia Tech's ACC title run in 2009, Thomas averaged 25.1 yards per catch with 46 receptions for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns.
Georgia Tech faces a dilemma in trying to find more receivers of that caliber. Because Georgia Tech has been unable to sign four-star wideouts, the Yellow Jackets rely on resourcefulness. The two receivers included in Georgia Tech's list of 2012 verbal commitments show the Yellow Jackets' willingness to look beyond the surface.
Micheal Summers primarily played running back in a wishbone offense at Statesboro (Ga.) High. Most schools recruiting Summers considered the three-star prospect a potential safety or cornerback, but he expects to play receiver at Georgia Tech.
He can't wait.
"When they throw the ball, it's usually for a big gain," Summers said. "You get a lot of one-on-one coverage, being they're an option team. With me being a receiver who can run, I think I can really excel against one-on-one coverage and can go get the deep ball. It didn't really play too much of a role, that they don't throw it that much.''
Anthony Autry played both defensive back and wide receiver at Norcross (Ga.) High, where he was overshadowed by four-star receiving prospect and Tennessee recruit Jason Croom. Autry's only other major-conference offer came from Indiana, but his blue-collar approach makes him a natural fit at Georgia Tech.
"I actually enjoy blocking," Autry said. "It doesn't bother me that they don't throw the ball a lot.''
Georgia Tech may need these incoming freshmen to contribute immediately because they lack experienced receivers. Daniel McKayhan, who had two receptions for 29 yards in 2010, is the only Georgia Tech wideout who has caught a pass in his college career.
Jeff Greene just completed his freshman season, and his 6-foot-4 frame could help him replace Hill as Georgia Tech's chief deep threat. The Yellow Jackets also return Alabama transfer Chris Jackson.
The Yellow Jackets also need someone take over for Tyler Melton, a physical receiver who caught 17 passes for 263 yards as a senior. That role could go to the 6-foot-5 Waller, who played safety until his senior year at Kennesaw (Ga.) North Cobb High.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that Waller, Summers and Autry all have experience playing defense. Waller says he still has a safety's mentality and believes it could help him thrive at Georgia Tech. After a year in the system, Waller realizes that playing receiver in this particular offense requires a different kind of skill set.
"You're not going to get as many passes as you would at Oklahoma State or a school like that,'' Waller said. "But you're out there contributing to the team. Perimeter blocks are one of the most important things for our offense. When an A-back gets out to the edge, once we get those perimeter blocks, that's how those big plays spring. We play such a big role in the offense without even touching the ball.''
Of course, they can play an even bigger role when they do have the ball in their hands.
Preston is bothered by the frequent refrain that Georgia Tech's wideouts spend more time blocking and less time catching than receivers at other schools. He notes that it's hard to create big plays in any type of offense unless receivers are blocking effectively.
When receiving prospects worry that Georgia Tech's run-first approach could cause them to get ignored by NFL scouts, Preston need only point to the fact that Thomas got drafted in the first round.
"It doesn't matter what offense you're in," Preston said. "If you have that goal and are willing to pay the price and be a great teammate, you work hard, don't worry about your individual stats and if you have the ability, you're going to make it big.''
That sales pitch strengthens with each Thomas touchdown.