Georgia Tech Football: Are The Justin Thomas Comparisons to Tracy Ham Fair? (Part 1- Similarities)


After the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs 49-34, social media started buzzing in celebration with Jackets fans marveling at the performance of Justin Thomas.

Some of those tweets on Twitter or posts on Facebook proclaimed that Jackets head coach Paul Johnson may have found his new Tracy Ham in Justin Thomas.

Tracy Ham, for those who don’t know, was the quarterback for then offensive coordinator Paul Johnson’s Georgia Southern Eagles’ teams that won back-to-back Division I-AA National Championships in 1985 and 1986.

Of course it would seem that comparing Ham and Thomas would make sense after Thomas guided the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to possibly the schools biggest football accomplishment since the share of 1990 National Championship with the Colorado Buffalos.

With people taking the time to speak of Justin Thomas in the vein of Tracy Ham, it just seemed logical to see if the comparisons and conversations were fair.

To do that it would be smart to learn about what the similarities and differences are.

This ended up being a very educational process. I was in California and was only nine years of age when Tracy Ham was dominating and winning championships in the I-AA ranks.

So I had to seek out someone who has followed Paul Johnson’s career and has seen enough football played in the State of Georgia to educate me properly on the talent Tracy Ham brought to the football field.

The person I sought out was Karl Haywood who is a sports writer with the Central Savannah Area River Press.

The reason why I sought him out is because he was the only writer smart enough to give Georgia Tech a First Place vote in last year’s ACC Preseason Poll.

Plus I figured his over 30 years worth of experience covering football in Georgia and mainly Georgia Tech would come in handy.

I simply asked five questions, but he gave me so much information that it is going to be impossible to simply fit it in one article.

So the approach to take in order to find out if the comparison is fair is to do it on an attribute for attribute basis.

Nov 8, 2014; Raleigh, NC, USA; Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas (5) runs in for a touchdown against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Carter Finley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

He did give me his disclaimer on the matter which was very fair:

“Please understand, I don’t claim to be the expert on either of these quarterbacks, but I can see so many similarities in them and the way Thomas is developing into “The Ham Role Model”. I do believe, if he continues to work hard at it, further develop his skills and abilities, listen and learn from Coach Johnson, and keep his head about him (because he will get a lot of press and attention after being Orange Bowl MVP and playing the games he did at the end of this season), he can really give Ham a run for his money at being “The Best” to run this offense.”

– Karl Haywood

He also gave very sound reasons why it was going to be difficult to compare Justin Thomas and Tracy Ham:

Thomas is just starting to get the hang of the offense and how to get the team into the right play at the right time.

It is almost a different era in college football – many things that can be done today by offensive and defensive players were illegal when Ham played – and some things that were legal when Ham played are totally forbidden today – that makes it kind of like comparing multiple types of oranges because they are the same thing – just different versions developed at a different time and under different conditions.

They are playing on different stages on totally different levels – Ham played at Georgia Southern in Division I-AA (a big and major difference in skill and speed in the competition) and won National Championships – Justin Thomas is playing in Division I and playing for ACC Titles and hopefully The College Football Championship Play-Offs.

I don’t have as vivid a memory and very good recall of Ham’s first year and half of running Coach Johnson’s offense. Though Coach Johnson recruited Ham and says he is the best he has coached at running his offense, it did take Ham some time to develop into “The Master” at it that he became his last two full seasons and part of his second season – kind of like what is taking place with Justin Thomas.

Let’s focus on the similarities; Tracy Ham’s dimensions are  5-foot-11 200 pounds, Justin Thomas’ dimensions are listed at 5-11, 189 pounds.

You would figure that in order to run Johnson’s option offense regardless of the time period the quarterback would have to have speed and elusiveness.

Mr. Haywood described the two players abilities like this:

” They both are built very similar and have great vision and quickness. Thomas is developing as Ham did in being able to read the defenses and make the right choices with the plays based on the different defenses.Thomas is still learning and evolving, and it is great to watch and see him develop into A Second Tracy Ham and eventually become “The Model”. There is a great connection between Coach Johnson and Thomas – just as there was between Coach Johnson and Ham – it’s kinda like they know what the other is thinking and wanting – that is something that takes great time and effort to develop, if you’re gonna get inside the head of Coach Johnson and know what he wants on a particular play in a particular situation in every game. Thomas is getting there. “

-Karl Haywood

Being able to change plays on the fly because of defensive recognition is the step that Georgia Tech fans are going to expect to see a lot of in the 2015 season with Thomas at the helm.

This is something that Thomas started to develop toward the end of last season and he was hit or miss with his decision. This is something that Mr. Haywood noticed:

 “I think you probably saw many times at the end of the season where Thomas checked down to a different play and possibly formation to get a better match against the defense, but did you also see the several times he made some checks, changed the play, and Coach Johnson called a time out because he saw Thomas had checked to a play or formation he didn’t think was the best for that particular set, defensive scheme, or position on the field. Having “The Connection” with Coach Johnson is quite unique and is critical to the ultimate success of this offense – Thomas is getting there and I believe he will get there and eventually surpass Ham.”

-Karl Haywood

The one major thing that is going to have a direct bearing on how Thomas gains command of the offense is how quickly he is able to develop a chemistry with his new backfield mates in 2015.

Last season, with experienced backs on the squad, it still took a few games before Thomas and the backs got on the same page and started executing at their peak.

2015 has Thomas playing with a lot of inexperienced players when it comes to Tech’s option attack.

It should not stunt the growth of Thomas, but it can upset the timing of plays as Thomas gets used to a new set of backs.

Karl Haywood explained it like this:

 “It took Thomas and the offensive backs several games into the year for things to “gel” because of the difference in speed of practice and “in real time, at real speed, with quality speed opponents” – there is a major difference and it took some adjusting by B-Backs, A-Backs, the quarterback, and the linemen. Thomas is so quick, as is Snoddy, while others are a bit slower – when Thomas would move too quick, the option couldn’t work because the backs and linemen were not as quick – he would then slow down a little, but they would try to speed up and it didn’t work as smoothly as it did in the second half of the season.I don’t really remember Ham having that problem, but I’m sure something similar forced adjustments for him as he took over the offense and began running it. Once everybody knew about the speed of Ham and Thomas and the speeds they play at, the multiple option offense started cooking and it served up some delicious wins at Georgia Southern under Ham and now at Georgia Tech as Thomas begins to show he is a major college quarterback. “

– Karl Haywood

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So similarities for Thomas and Ham essentially come down to field awareness, size, stature, and growing pains trying to grasp the intricacies of Paul Johnson’s option offense.

The differences are where things may get a tad bit hairy as we try to find out if the comparison between Tracy Ham and Justin Thomas are fair.

But that sounds like something that is going to need it’s own article.

Hopefully Part Two is as enlightening as Part One. I feel smarter just trying to write this.