ATHENS, Ga. — Andrew Thomas’ raw potential was easy for Chris Slade to see when Thomas arrived at Pace Academy in Atlanta as a freshman.
Living up to it took a few years.
“I threw him out of practice a couple of times, because I didn’t like the way he was practicing,” Slade said. “I told him to tell his momma to pick him up.”
Slade could envision the offensive lineman being able to name what college program he wanted to go to and could picture him one day being a high NFL Draft pick, but not unless Thomas changed.
The Pace Academy head coach knows something about what it takes to play at the highest level.
He’s a former nine-year NFL defensive end who was an All-American at Virginia.
To get more out of Thomas, he constantly rode the offensive lineman in his first three seasons.
“He was just a big kid,” Slade said. “He had all the ability and tools, but he just wasn’t a self-starter.”
Now the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Thomas is the only true freshman starting offensive lineman in the College Football Playoff.
He started every game for Georgia at right tackle for a 12-1 team that is ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“It was tough, but it’s definitely rewarding,” Thomas said. “I had to work hard for it.”
Slade saw Thomas starting to meet his high expectations during his junior season, but challenged him again when he sat him down prior to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl a year ago. He told him that some thought he shouldn’t even be playing in the game.
“You’re not playing to your potential,” Slade told him. “Some people think you’re overrated and I can see why.”
He wanted Thomas—a four-star recruit—to establish his reputation again and he did with a standout week in San Antonio, Texas that has carried on to his college career.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart credited Slade and Pace offensive line coach Kevin Johnson for preparing Thomas for being able to handle the demands necessary to be able to contribute to the level Thomas has in his rookie college season.
“Here’s a kid who came in very well groomed for what we were about to do and he’s handled it really well,” Smart said.
It helped that Thomas may be the smartest player Slade said he has ever coached, calling him as knowledgeable about blitzes and stunts as a defensive lineman as well as the protections and blocking assignments as an offensive lineman. He also played percussion in the Pace Academy band.
Teammates learned pretty quickly that Thomas could be a difference-maker. Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Davin Bellamy, who has 11 ½ sacks at Georgia, said in the preseason he “expected to have my way with him.” That didn’t work out as planned.
After Thomas stifled Bellamy, the veteran vowed to come at him harder, but Thomas kept it up just like he did against other pass rushers.
“OK, yeah, this guy’s for real,”Bellamy said. “He’s long. He knows the playbook. He has got (quick) feet. He’s patient to be so young and Isaiah Wynn is really showing him the ropes.”
Absorbing that playbook was the first obstacle for Thomas and then it was going through the physical grind of being a starter in the SEC.
“I got through it,” he said.
Tight end Isaac Nauta said watching film of Thomas blocking a Vanderbilt player downfield some 20 yards was a “wow” moment for him. “He’s all about his business and doesn’t have a lot to say. He just goes to work. That side of it is definitely a mature part about him.”
Smart said in October that Thomas was “holding up,” and “holding in his own,” and that he benefitted from a strong run game and not putting him in too many “tough positions.”
Thomas had a rough game against Auburn and pass rusher Jeff Holland, but it was a stepback game for the Bulldogs entire offensive line. Both Thomas and the Bulldogs redeemed themselves in the rematch.
“We went back and watched a lot of film, made some changes on the O-line,” Thomas said. “A lot of it was technique based. … We just went back and were just a lot more technically sound.”
Thomas earned freshman All-American honors and joined quarterback Jake Fromm and tailback D’Andre Swift as Georgia’s offensive newcomers of the year.
There are still playoff games remaining—Georgia plays New Year’s Day against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, but Thomas could move to left tackle this spring when Wynn’s career has wrapped up.
“Dude is an unbelievable player right now,” Nauta said, “and he’s going to get even better as time goes on.”