Georgia Tech vs. Alcorn State
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta
On TV: Fox Sports South
ATLANTA — Justin Thomas has a bunch of new guys around him heading into Thursday night’s opener.
Georgia Tech doesn’t seem the least bit worried.
As long as the No. 16 Yellow Jackets have their maestro of a quarterback, they’re confident of having another stellar season.
Thomas certainly expects nothing less.
“I always hold myself to a high standard,” the junior said, looking ahead to the opening game against lower-division opponent Alcorn State. “It’s the same way going into this season. I expect to do great things. I expect the guys around me to do great things.”
Thomas is coming off a breakout year with the Yellow Jackets, who went 11-3, reached the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, won the Orange Bowl, and finished No. 8 in The Associated Press rankings.
In his first year as the starter, Thomas set a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,086) and did enough damage though the air (1,719 yards, 18 touchdowns) to keep defenses honest.
Just as important, the 5-foot-11, 189-pounder impressed his teammates with his toughness and willingness to take the big hits — a necessity for any quarterback in Georgia Tech’s run-oriented, triple-option system.
No matter what, Thomas never seems to get flustered.
“When we’re in critical situations, he’s calm,” offensive tackle Errin Joe said. “I just love his calmness when things get tough. That’s what you’re supposed to have in your leadership, someone who says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this. We’ve got this.’”
Thomas will be working with an entirely new group of starters at running back and receiver.
“All we’re really focusing on is building on the foundation of last year,” Joe said. “Yeah, we lost a couple of key players. But what we’re telling the guys stepping into those spots is you don’t have to fill their shoes. Just do you job, do what you’re supposed to do, go 100 percent, and we’ll have no problem adjusting to anything thrown at us.”
Alcorn State, trying to carry on from a 10-win season and its first Southwestern Athletic Conference title since 1993, faces a monumental challenge against the Yellow Jackets.
The only other SWAC team to face Georgia Tech was Alabama A&M, which was routed 66-7 in 2013.
“These are the type of opponents we want to play,” Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson said. “Anytime you get to play a team of that caliber, it’s certainly a big opportunity.”
Some things to watch for when Georgia Tech hosts Alcorn State:
NEW B-BACK: Patrick Skov takes over what is essentially the fullback position in Georgia Tech’s offense.
Unlike more conventional systems, which rely on the fullback mainly for blocking, the B-back usually gets the bulk of the handoffs for the Yellow Jackets. Last season, Synjin Days and Zach Laskey combined for 328 carries, 1,775 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Skov, a graduate transfer from Stanford with one year of eligibility remaining, rushed for just 18 yards his final year with the Cardinal. Freshman Marcus Marshall and junior Marcus Allen should also get extensive playing time at that spot.
SEASONED LINE: Georgia Tech does have plenty of experience up front, with four of five starters turning on the offensive line. The only newcomer is right guard Shamire Devine, a third-year sophomore who takes over for Shaq Mason.
SWARMING DEFENSE: With so many new starters at the skill positions, Georgia Tech might have to rely on its defense to carry more of a load than usual, at least early in the season. End KeShun Freeman (4.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for losses), tackle Adam Gotsis, and safety Jamal Golden are the leaders on that side of the line.
VERSATILE GIBBS: Alcorn State returns all 11 starters on offense, most notably quarterback John Gibbs Jr. The fourth-year starter was the SWAC offensive player of the year in 2014, completing 58 percent of his passes for 2,482 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also led the Braves in rushing with 1,006 yards.
FAST STARTERS: Don’t be late to the game. A year ago, the Yellow Jackets put up points the first time they touched the ball in 10 of 14 contests. No other team matched their 71.4 percent scoring rate on the opening possession.