ATHENS – Andrew Thomas watched the horror show. Every part of it. He sat with his Georgia teammates and watched film of Auburn players bull-rushing them, beating them one-on-one and pushing them around.
Then he stayed in the film room by himself and watched it all again.
“It just hurt,” Thomas said of seeing Auburn star linebacker Jeff Holland run around him early in that game on Nov. 11 for a sack of Jake Fromm,. There were multiple other plays when Thomas, for basically the first time this season, looked like a freshman who was overmatched.
“I didn’t really focus on the part of me getting beat. I focused on why I got beat,” Thomas said. “In that game a lot of it was my technique.”
Thomas recalled this as he stood outside a corner locker in an exultant Georgia postgame locker room, following the 28-7 win over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
UGA had hit the latest stop on its revenge tour, and so had Thomas. The rookie had lived, learned and quickly atoned. It was the latest sign that the Bulldogs have something special in him.
Thomas has started every game at right tackle as a freshman, the first freshman offensive lineman to do so in five years since John Theus. He was a key member of a Georgia offensive line that has turned around this season.
All, incidentally, while taking a full course load of five classes, notching four A’s and one B.
“African Studies,” Thomas said, when asked his hardest class.
And taking five classes while also starting as a freshman – who didn’t enroll early – for an SEC championship team?
“It’s not that hard,” Thomas said with a shrug. “Coming from Pace Academy, being a freshman at Georgia, it’ll probably get harder once I get into my major classes.”
Pace Academy, the high-end school in Atlanta, did indeed prepare Thomas well, on and off the field. He credited his coaches and the trainer at the private school for his ability to come in and make a quick impression this summer.
There was buzz about Thomas emanating from Georgia’s camp early on. Even before camp. Kirby Smart told a meeting of Atlanta boosters in July that Thomas was doing well and was likely to be on the two-deep. He was underselling it, as it turns out.
Defensive lineman Julian Rochester, speaking in August, called Thomas “amazing” and marveled at his long arms. Offensive lineman Pat Allen, a third-year player, said Thomas reminded him of senior offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn “a lot.” Nick Chubb, in almost a self-description, said Thomas was “quiet and very mature,” and “always focused and locked in.”
It was Wynn who took Thomas as a protegé. The two room together before games, giving Wynn a chance to pass along insight and pointers that enabled him to be a three-year starter. Georgia is 18-1 with Wynn at left tackle, the position Thomas may inherit next season.
“Isaiah, he’s such a beast. He’s a great player. He’s going to do well on the next level. But he’s such a leader,” Thomas said. “In practice he’s like the bell cow. Whatever’s going on, we follow him and that’s how it works.”
It didn’t work the first time Georgia played Auburn. Four sacks, including an ugly one early by Holland on Thomas, and an all-around inability to run the ball. Self-corrections were needed anyway, but the team believed a rematch with Auburn could be in store, so that hastened the film work. Thomas said it made him practice harder.
The first game Auburn had Holland, the All-America candidate, line up on Thomas’ side as much as possible. What happened in the second game?
“It was the same thing,” Thomas said. “I just feel like I played better.”
It bears noting that there is another offensive line standout at Pace: Guard Jamaree Salyer, who lined up at left guard next to Thomas and is considered one of the nation’s top prospects, and very much in play for Georgia.
But first the Bulldogs have the College Football Playoffs, where Thomas, only the fourth freshman offensive lineman to start Georgia’s opener since 1973, hopes to achieve something else: Being the first freshman offensive tackle to start 15 games.