Georgia Tech’s defense is far from world-beater status, but in 2012 they proved to be effective at times against the pass, including the ACC Championship Game when they held the high-flying Florida State Seminoles to just 134 yards through the air and 6.4 yards per attempt in a 21-16 loss.
Going into the Sun Bowl against USC, the Yellow Jackets’ defensive backs are likely to face their biggest challenge of their season by going up against Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, but with safety Jemea Thomas leading the way against an uncertain quarterback situation, Tech has a serious chance of giving the Trojans fits in the passing game.
Thomas, a 5-foot-10, 195 pound redshirt-junior out of Fitzgerald, Georgia, leads the Yellow Jackets in interceptions, and has the notoriety of being called ‘iPod’ by teammates, which may be explained by his ability to turn up the volume in big games.
His first two career interceptions came last season in the fourth quarter of his first career start, which coincided with an upset of then-5th ranked Clemson. Most recently, in this year’s ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, Thomas had a spectacular one-handed pick on a pass from Florida State’s E.J. Manuel.
Fast forward to the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve, and Thomas will be looking to improve his big game reputation against two All-American wide receivers, a challenge that any player of Thomas’s caliber revels in.
Going up against the Trojans, expect him to play in cloud coverage against the pass at times, and considering Thomas started the season as a cornerback, don’t be surprised if he lines up to press Marqise Lee in man coverage.
The way to shut down the USC passing attack is to get pressure on the quarterback and jam the receivers, taking Lee and Woods off of their game physically, a gameplan that Hawaii showed way back in September, and something that Notre Dame executed successfully against Lee in the season finale.
As a converted cornerback, Thomas has the ability to give all sorts of looks to help bring the physicality needed to slow down the Trojans, and as seen with his 82 tackles on the season, he has the athleticism to pursue the ball from all over the field.
The Trojans have played against playmakers similar to Thomas this season, the biggest example coming against Washington’s extremely talented secondary. In that game, Lane Kiffin opted to play away from playmakers like Desmond Trufant, Sean Parker and Shaq Thompson, and instead decided to pound the ball on the ground.
With Georgia Tech’s average rush defense, relying on the run to force Thomas into the box could be an option for Kiffin, but in the second half of the season and even against Notre Dame, the Trojans’ offense was predicated on establishing the passing game, a mindset that ultimately cost them against UCLA.
At the end of the day, the Trojans have the best offensive weapon in the nation in Marqise Lee, and given Kiffin’s reliance in his playmaking ability, USC is going to throw the ball plenty against Georgia Tech, and Lee will get his touches.
So, in what is otherwise a rather dull Sun Bowl matchup, Jemea Thomas going up against the two-headed monster of the Trojans’ receiving corps might end up being one of the bigger talking points depending the outcome.