If college football's most prestigious individual prize were named after Robert Ripley instead of John Heisman, Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas would win the award in a landslide.
Thomas is putting together the type of improbable season that could make him a featured exhibition in one of those Ripley's Believe It Or Not museums.
Thomas, a 6-foot-3 junior, is ranked among the nation's top 20 players in receiving yards per game while playing on a team that runs the ball 82 percent of the time. He has more than two-thirds of the Yellow Jackets' catches. In Georgia Tech's two biggest games this season -- against Miami and Virginia Tech -- Thomas had all of his team's receptions.
Thomas has proved that a receiver can emerge as an All-America candidate and a legitimate NFL prospect while being part of an offense that runs an option attack. If that scenario seems a bit unusual, you're not alone. Even the guy accomplishing this feat once was a doubting Thomas.
"I never thought it would happen," Thomas said. "... I never thought I would be one of the [nation's] top receivers. I always wanted to, but I never thought it could happen."
Thomas wasn't alone in that regard.
Georgia Tech receivers Colin Peek and D.J. Donley decided to transfer after the 2007 season following the hiring of Paul Johnson, who planned to install the option attack that had worked so well for him at Navy. Wide receiver James Johnson chose to give up football while remaining enrolled in school, though his decision resulted more from injuries than the change in offensive philosophy.
Thomas considered following his former teammates out the door.
"I thought about it," Thomas said. "Everybody was saying how in the triple option, they don't throw the ball much. I got a phone call from [quarterback] coach [Brian] Bohannon. He told me to give it a chance, so I stayed and gave it a chance. I liked it."
His faith in the system was rewarded last season, when Thomas caught more passes for more yards than he had compiled the previous year in former coach Chan Gailey's pro-style attack.
In his second season in this system, Thomas is a major reason Georgia Tech (6-1 overall, 4-1 in the ACC) heads into Saturday's game at Virginia (3-3, 2-0) with the No. 12 position in the initial BCS rankings.
Seven games into the season, Thomas has 27 catches for a career-high 671 receiving yards and has matched his previous career high with four touchdown receptions. He is averaging an astounding 24.9 yards per catch, which ranks him second in the nation to USC tight end Anthony McCoy.
Johnson said he believes Thomas always had the capabilities to put up these kinds of numbers. The difference this season is the improvement of the entire passing attack.
The main target
This look at Georgia Tech's individual receiving statistics shows how critical Demaryius Thomas is to the Yellow Jackets' passing attack.
"Bay-Bay's always been a good player," said Johnson, referring to Thomas by his nickname. "We're probably a little better at protecting the passer, and he's made a lot more big plays this year. We've probably thrown him the ball deep more than last year."
Instead of complaining about a system that gives him few chances to touch the ball, Thomas has learned to make the most of his opportunities. Georgia Tech rarely dumps the ball off to him or throws him a screen pass. When the ball is thrown in Thomas' direction, it usually is a deep pass that can produce a game-changing result.
And in the rare games when Georgia Tech has chosen to throw more than a dozen times, Thomas has offered a hint of what types of statistics he could produce if he played in a spread offense. When Georgia Tech attempted 14 passes in a 42-31 victory at Mississippi State, Thomas caught eight of them, for 174 yards and a touchdown.
"He's got great size and great ball skills," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "When you're playing them, 100 percent of your focus is on stopping the run. When you're doing that, he gets lots of one-on-one matchups. With his size and ability, he makes plays in those one-on-one matchups."
Many of those skills came from his years on the basketball court. Thomas has played basketball all his life and didn't start competing in organized football until the spring of his freshman year at West Laurens High School in Montrose, Ga. John Kenny still remembers crossing paths with Thomas shortly after he took over as the football coach at West Laurens.
"Who's that kid?" Kenny asked the principal.
"Demaryius Thomas," the principal answered.
"He wasn't in my football meeting,'' Kenny said. "I don't remember him.''
"No, coach, he's a basketball and track guy," the principal said.
"Well, he's a football guy now," Kenny replied.
Sure enough, Kenny talked Thomas into participating in spring football his freshman year. Thomas would go on to play football at West Laurens for three more seasons and developed into a three-star prospect.
But he also continued to play basketball and filled a key role on West Laurens' state championship team his sophomore year in high school. Former West Laurens basketball coach Paul Williams cites one play as evidence of Thomas' extraordinary athleticism. Thomas threw the ball inbounds from under the opposing team's basket. When the guy who caught the pass missed a 3-point shot, Thomas took one step inbounds and made a one-handed dunk.
"I think he could have played Division I basketball," said Williams, now the coach at Camden County High School in Kingsland, Ga. "I called him 'The Future.' That was his nickname because I knew he was going to really good. He was something else. He was a hard worker. He had all the tools."
Thomas continues to put those basketball skills on display each week.
Demaryius Thomas - whose nickname is Bay-Bay" - ranks second in the nation in yards per catch. He has more receiving yards than anyone in the top 10 while playing on a team that throws the ball significantly less often. Here's a look at the top 10 players in that category and how often their teams throw the ball. To qualify for the list, a player must have participated in 75 percent of his team's games while averaging at least two catches per game.
NOTE: * Reflects percentage of plays team has passed the ball this season. (Source: cfbstats.com)
All those years jostling under the basket have helped him learn how to outmaneuver defenders for long passes. If Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt throws a deep pass up for grabs, Thomas seemingly can outleap any defensive back for the ball.
"He's almost tight end size," Virginia coach Al Groh said. "He's in the 230-plus range [he is officially listed as 229] and has good jumping ability, so he plays high. With the size of his body and his natural height of 6-3 and with the ability to jump high, there have been a lot of plays where he's boxed that defender out. Clearly, a lot of teams are playing with corners that certainly aren't 6-3."
Those skills should make him a natural red-zone target at the next level, whenever he opts to go pro.
Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com, said his site rates Thomas as a potential second-round pick, though he personally considers Thomas more of a third-round selection. While his physical build might bring back memories of first-round flop Mike Williams, Thomas possesses speed that Williams, a former USC star, lacked.
"He has that second burst that is pretty unique for guys of his size," Rang said. "He can be a big-play guy. That's what I questioned about Mike Williams. The only reason he made big plays at USC was the talent around him. This guy has talent around him, but he's also making big plays on his own that I didn't see Mike Williams make."
Rang noted that Thomas needs to develop into a more dominant blocker and that playing in an option attack has left Thomas unpolished as a route runner. Thomas inevitably will hear that criticism whenever he gets ready to begin his pro career.
But that he currently projects as an early round draft pick shows that a wide receiver can survive -- and even thrive -- while working in an option attack. Thomas offers the following advice to receivers worried about playing in this type of offense.
"Just listen to the coach," Thomas said. "Don't listen to anybody else. Watch film on Tech. Once you get a chance, it's going to be a big play. It's not going to be one of those short passes. We do throw the ball."
And when they do throw the ball, it almost always ends up in Thomas' hands.