ATHENS – There’s a reason Andrew Thomas is an exceptional offensive lineman, and it goes beyond his quick feet, strong arms and 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame.
Turns out, the Georgia sophomore has been double-dipping on the coaching front. Not only has Thomas been receiving the excellent teaching of the Bulldogs’ well-respected college football veteran Sam Pittman, but he also regularly seeks advice and instruction from Kevin Johnson, his position coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta.
Johnson is responsible for instilling in Thomas the baseline fundamentals that the Bulldogs coaches said were instrumental in him earning the starting job at right tackle last season. As a freshman, Thomas beat out several upperclassmen to start all 15 games. Not surprisingly, Thomas earned freshman All-America honors from ESPN, USA Today and the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), among others.
It was as rewarding for Johnson as it was for Thomas. Thomas has been Johnson’s star student since he arrived at Pace as a tall, skinny ninth grader five years ago. But Johnson also watches Thomas play with a critical eye. So, the pupil hears more criticism than praise from his teacher.
“I tell him, you can’t dwell on any game, good or bad,” Johnson said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I always tell him, look at the bad stuff. The good stuff is going to take care of itself, so look at the bad stuff and figure out what you need to get better at. I thought he did a good job of that.”
Johnson won’t get an argument from anybody wearing a Georgia uniform. Just strictly from a participation standpoint, that Thomas played virtually every meaningful snap of every game at right tackle as a freshman tells you the level of player he is. But his coaches and teammates make it clear that Thomas wasn’t just holding down a spot because there was nobody else the Bulldogs could turn to. The highly touted Ben Cleveland, then a redshirt freshman, was competing for the position. So were upperclassmen Pat Allen, Kendall Baker and junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes.
Thomas emerged unquestioned as the best option, and that was evident from the last week of preseason camp to the last snap of the National Championship Game.
“Andrew’s a great player, a great offensive lineman,” said junior tight end Charlie Woerner, who often lines up beside him. “I think he’ll be a first-round pick someday.”
Johnson, Thomas’ discerning personal coach, thought his protégé did “all right.”
“He had a few technical mistakes throughout the course of 15 games. So, he could’ve played better,” Johnson said. “But for a freshman, 18 years old, playing against some of the best competition in the country, he pretty played well. For the most part, he did a great job.”
That was then. Now Thomas is being asked to make the transition to left tackle for the Bulldogs. Everybody knows the importance of that position, which has the primary responsibility of protecting a right-handed quarterback’s blind side. A player manning the position has to be well versed in protections, must think on the fly and has to be a strong – and loud – communicator.
It’s not totally new for Thomas. He started every game of his high school career at left tackle and got an extensive look at the position in camp last year before the Bulldogs finally selected senior Isaiah Wynn. That obviously proved a good decision as Wynn, a converted guard, earned All-SEC honors and now is considered top prospect in the April NFL draft.
But moving to left tackle always has been the plan for Thomas. In fact, he worked there part-time with the second-team offense the last two months of the season.
“I started getting some reps there late in the season last year,” Thomas said after practice on Tuesday, the Bulldogs’ fourth of the spring session. “That’s what I started off playing when I first came, so the transition has been pretty smooth so far.”
Asked last weekend for his opinion on Thomas so far at left tackle, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he “hasn’t noticed.”
“If you don’t notice him, it’s probably a good thing,” Smart said with a chuckle. “It’s not like it’s popping up sacks. It’s very quiet. It’s like, ‘OK, there are not a lot of issues over there.’ We haven’t had a lot of pass rush on that side. He’s made the transition well.”
Ultimately, the responsibility of getting Thomas ready to play on that side of the offensive formation falls on Pittman. He long has been considered one of the best in college football, and he identified Thomas as his potential left tackle of the future the first day he met him at Pace Academy.
But Johnson is also doing his part to get Thomas ready. He has continued to fulfill a vital role in Thomas’ development. In fact, Thomas spent several days working with Johnson when he went home for spring break earlier this month.
“He looks good. He feels good,” Johnson said. “We decided on some things he needed to work on, but I feel really good about him making that transition. I feel confident he’s going to lead that group. He’s one of the younger guys, but he’s shown some tremendous strides since leaving here and going to UGA.”
Johnson’s influence is not limited to those sessions when Thomas can get back home. During the season, they would talk every Sunday, and Johnson would tell him what he saw from the television replay. They constantly send text messages back and forth, and almost always after practices. They talk on the phone at least once a week.
Johnson and Thomas actually had a conversation Monday night about the difficulties of transitioning from right tackle to left.
“I told him, it’s all about switching the brain over,” Johnson said. “He’s gotten used to being on the right side, thinking with the right side of the brain. Now he’s got to think out of the left side of his brain. So, we talked about the technical aspect of that [Monday] night and some other things.”
Smart and Pittman are both well aware of Johnson’s influence on Thomas, and they welcome it. Often last season, they attributed Thomas’ strong play as a freshman to the advanced football fundamentals and offensive-line techniques he brought to UGA from Pace.
“He has a lot to do with my development, pretty much everything,” Thomas said of Johnson. “He’s built me from the ground up. Obviously, I’ve learned a lot from Coach Pittman also. But fundamentals and stuff like that, I learned from playing with Coach Johnson for four years. I still train with him to this day.”
Of course, Johnson is mindful of Georgia’s jurisdiction when it comes to Thomas’ development. He’s careful to stay out of the Bulldogs way and not introduce anything that could cause confusion or restrict his progress.
“Georgia does a great job with those guys at the next level,” Johnson said. “All I try to do is keep him fine-tuned for them. I’m a coach from afar.”
If his players keep turning out like Thomas, the Bulldogs are just fine with Johnson’s “fine-tuning.” Johnson is, after all, sending another blue-chip offensive lineman their way.
Like Thomas, Jamaree Salyer played all four years at Pace under Johnson and head coach Chris Slade. The 6-4, 325-pound Salyer is a 5-star prospect whom 247Sports ranked as the No. 1 guard in the nation last year. For three years, Salyer and Thomas were the left side of the offensive line for Pace Academy, which was no small part in that school claiming the Class AAA state championship in 2015.
Salyer and Thomas obviously have trained a lot under Johnson. They worked out together during Thomas’ spring break earlier this month, and the plan is for the duo to work together for the last two weeks in May before they both have to report back to UGA’s campus for summer school.
Johnson isn’t sure if it will happen this season or next, but eventually he envisions Thomas and Salyer being reunited on the left side of the line for the Bulldogs.
“I’m hoping and praying that happens,” Johnson said. “Jamaree knows what he has to do when he gets there. He’s just got to go to work. If he does, I think they’ll be able to feed off each other. They know each other. … They just have those signals down with each other.
“These guys won a state championship together. Hopefully they can win a national championship together. I know that’s the plan.”
Thomas has held up his end of the deal.