Pat Thomas began to take charge last year, when a knee injury confined him to the sidelines.
Instead of just watching or sulking, Thomas encouraged and rallied his Georgia Military College teammates. He was quick with advice or an ear to listen.
That rapport continued through the offseason, when Thomas became the favorite to start at quarterback this season for the Bulldogs.
“I was a vocal leader last year and spent it bonding with the team,” he said. “When the season was over, the coaches put the keys to the team in my hands. I took it in stride. It was my team, and I wanted to be a leader for the guys this year.”
Thomas, who played at Banneker High, added healthy legs and a strong arm to his other abilities to lead the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and a berth in the NJCAA national championship game.
No. 1 GMC (11-0) will play second-ranked East Mississippi Community College (11-0) in the Mississippi Bowl at 3 p.m. Sunday in Biloxi, Miss. It will be streamed live at njcaatv.com/bowlgames.
“We knew coming into this season that we had the nucleus to reach the national championship game,” Thomas said. “We knew we would do whatever it takes to do it. We knew we had to be the leaders for the younger guys. We took this season as a challenge.”
Coming off a 7-4 season, GMC wasn’t ranked in the preseason poll. The Bulldogs quickly began to rocket up the rankings.
They were fifth by Sept. 24 and took over No. 1 on the first day of October, thanks to a devastating offense led by Thomas and running backs Jovon Robinson and Akeem Judd.
Robinson, a former Auburn signee, leads the nation with 2,149 yards and 31 touchdowns. Judd, who committed to Ole Miss, has 554, and Thomas has thrown for 1,600 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“Pat has run the offense exceptionally well, and we’ve been able to do what we need to do,” GMC coach Bert Williams said. “We’ve been able to get up on people and the running game has taken us to the house. We’ve been very successful.”
The Bulldogs are averaging 46.5 points and have surpassed 60 in two of their past three games. They’re also holding teams to 17.5 points, thanks to defensive ends DaVonte Lambert (Burke County), who committed to Tennessee, and former N.C. State player Kenderius Whitehead (M.L. King), who have combined for 15 1/2 sacks and 33 1/2 tackles for loss.
The Bulldogs will be challenged by East Mississippi quarterback Dontreal Pruitt, who has thrown for 3,599 yards, 42 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Thomas, who is thinking about offers from UAB and Western Kentucky, along with South Alabama, Troy and Utah State, doesn’t have the gaudy numbers of his counterpart.
That’s just fine with Williams.
“Pat is playing really well for us,” he said. “He’s a dual threat. He’s good on his feet. He keeps his head. He keeps his cool. He’s doing a good job leading the offense.”
Williams led GMC to the 2001 national championship and a No. 2 finish in 2002.
“I’m excited for these guys to have that chance,” he said. “It was special for us in ’01 and ’02 to play for the championship. People around the program have been talking about the national championship game for a while, but our guys have done a great job of focusing on each weekend.
“It’s time to take that last possible step. If we can take care of business, no on can say they had a better team than you.”