ATLANTA — Demaryius Thomas wondered if he should start looking for another school.
After all, what receiver wants to play for a team that's going to the "spread option?" He knew that was just a fancy way of saying Georgia Tech's playbook would be changing to run, run — and run some more.
"At first, I was worried," Thomas said. "When I heard who was coming, I was thinking about leaving."
Now, he couldn't be happier with the offense brought in by the Yellow Jackets' first-year coach, Paul Johnson.
While Thomas doesn't get a ton of balls thrown his way, he's sure making the most of the chances he does get. And No. 21 Georgia Tech is off to its best start since 1990, cracking the national rankings for the first time this season and grabbing the lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division.
The Yellow Jackets (6-1, 3-1 ACC) face a crucial game today, hosting one of the hottest teams in the country. Virginia (4-3, 2-1) has bounced back from a dismal start, winning three straight after losing three of its first four games by an average margin of 36 points.
While Georgia Tech will surely run more than it throws — the stat sheet shows 348 rushing attempts, compared with only 83 passes — the Cavaliers would be well advised to keep an eye on Thomas, the best receiver in these parts since Calvin Johnson.
The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Thomas, only a sophomore, was on the receiving end of all nine passes the Yellow Jackets completed against Duke, accounting for 230 yards in the second-best day in school history. Last week, Thomas got behind the secondary to haul in a 24-yard touchdown pass with less than 51/2 minutes remaining to give Georgia Tech a 21-17 victory at Clemson.
"I tried it, and I liked it," he said of Johnson's offense. "You're going to be one-on-one most times they throw the ball to you. And most times, you're going to be wide open because (the defense) is biting on the play action."
In an offense centered on quarterback Josh Nesbitt, running back Jonathan Dwyer and two wingbacks (known as A-backs in Johnson-speak), Thomas has still managed to shine. With just 22 catches, he ranks second in the ACC in receiving yards with 69.2 per game.
"You've just got to be patient," he said. "You'll get your chance if you just work hard in the offense."
Virginia has worked hard to turn its season around. The Cavaliers opened with a 52-7 home loss to Southern Cal, were routed 45-10 by Connecticut, and got thoroughly embarrassed in a 31-3 loss at Duke.
But a different team took the field when the calendar flipped to October. Virginia blew out Maryland 31-0, beat up on East Carolina 35-20 and, last weekend, pulled out a 16-13 overtime win against North Carolina.
"It's really been a wild ride," quarterback Marc Verica said. "Not a lot of people thought that we would be in this position after we went down to (Duke), but now we are and we're not content. We're not satisfied. We're just going to continue to work hard and ... maybe we will find ourselves in position to really do something big this season."
The Cavaliers could claim first place in the Coastal Division with a win today, but they'll have to stop an offense that is basically an updated version of the ol' wishbone. Dwyer has five 100-yard games and leads the ACC in rushing. A-back Roddy Jones and Lucas Cox can swing around to take option pitches from Nesbitt.
Georgia Tech is averaging more than 248 yards on the ground, far ahead of anyone else in the ACC.
"It's unlike anything I've ever played in my life at this level, so it's going to be challenge," Virginia linebacker Clint Sintim said. "We just have to really focus on what they do and the responsibilities that we have to maintain."
Cavaliers coach Al Groh said it's also important to keep an eye on the passing game, especially with a receiver such as Thomas lurking on the outside. Even though the Yellow Jackets are completing less than half their throws (40-of-83), they rank first in the ACC in pass efficiency.
"Getting back to the old wishbone history, when Oklahoma and Texas and those teams were really running wild with it, it was always the play-action pass that seemed to break everything open," Groh said.
Virginia takes a more balanced approach. After a four-interception performance against Duke, Verica has cut down on his mistakes in the last three games. Overall, he's completed 65 percent for 1,011 yards.
But the most intriguing matchup is in the trenches.
With 315-pound Eugene Monroe anchoring the offensive line, the Cavaliers have allowed only eight sacks, tied for the fewest in the ACC. Georgia Tech leads the conference with 20 sacks, going at offenses with a devastating 1-2 punch off the edge. Sophomore Derrick Morgan has 6.5 sacks and nine tackles behind the line, while senior Michael Johnson has three sacks and eight tackles that resulted in negative yards.
Monroe vs. Johnson should be quite a battle.
"Anybody who knows anything about football knows they are both going to be high picks (in the NFL draft) next year," said Georgia Tech defensive tackle Darryl Richard. "I really want to see those two guys get after it."