Corey Cusick/ Times-Georgian
All the ballots are in, all precincts are now closed — it's Jaylan Thomas in a landslide.
The Carrollton High School senior tailback is officially your man to lead the Black and Gold gridiron district on its state championship mission.
And when it comes to a fearless competitor to carry his Trojan constituents into the Class AAAAA state playoffs, second-year Carrollton head coach Sean Calhoun can't imagine a more qualified candidate than No. 4.
Thomas had already established himself as a voice that demands respect in the locker room and his game speaks for itself on the field, but his role took on even greater responsibility midway through the season when two fellow captains and cornerstones to the Trojan offensive arsenal went down due to injury.
Senior receiver and Purdue University commit Jordan Bonner suffered a knee injury in the third game of the year against East Paulding in the region opener and senior quarterback Mark Wright, another Division I recruit, was lost to a collarbone injury three games later against Villa Rica.
That put the onus squarely on Thomas to raise the stakes, and there's no bluff in his game.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound talent has saved his best work for when it matters most, tallying three games of more than 200 yards and five others over the 100-yard mark, dating back to the East Paulding contest where he rushed for a season-high 243 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries.
His streak of four straight 100-plus-yard performances was snapped last week at Cass after gaining 82 yards on minimal carries during the first-half rout before the Trojans cleared the bench.
For the season, Thomas spearheads the ground attack with 1,215 yards and 14 touchdowns on only 121 carries in nine games — he sat out the Woodland game with a minor injury — averaging an incredible 10.0 yards per carry. He's also pulled in 10 receptions for 167 yards and another score.
After Bonner and Wright were sidelined with the injuries, Thomas knew he had to step up his game, and everyone on the team followed suit. Thankfully, Bonner is back for the playoff run and Wright is still working to return to the field as sophomore signal-caller Kashif Taylor has stepped in and delivered a quality showing during his absence.
"Obviously, Jordan went down first and I had to pick up a pretty good amount of work because our top receiver went down. People started trying to stack the box up and that became nothing but just making plays. Then when Mark Wright went down, it really hurt us, too," Thomas said. "But we came together as a team. The O-linemen stepped up, the defense stepped up and made a lot of stops, goal-line stands. Special teams stepped up, too. So it wasn't just an offensive factor. Because when we lost them two, the offense didn't just lose them. The whole team lost them. When they went down, the whole team had to pick it up."
Along with the injuries, another turning point in the season came after the Trojans lost on homecoming to Hiram and were in jeopardy of getting ran off the field again the following week at Kell.
Trailing by 21 points at halftime, Thomas and the Trojan seniors rallied the troops in the locker room and delivered one of the most epic comebacks in recent history for the Carrollton program.
Now the positive Mojo is flowing again at Grisham Stadium as the Trojans (8-2) prepare for third-seeded Clarke Central (7-3) on Friday night at 7:30 for the postseason opener.
"We went into the locker room at Kell and we had a gut check. We looked ourselves in the mirror and had to ask, 'Is this going to define our season? Is Hiram going to define our season?' We all came together and decided that our season was not going to be defined by one game or one half," Thomas recalled.
Despite having to take on the larger role, Thomas still feels fresh for the playoff run. He's avoided taking a huge toll of massive hits as he hasn't carried the ball more than 21 times in a game this season, but Calhoun said one of the 25-to-30 carry games could be on the horizon this postseason.
"Running back is probably our deepest position when it comes to depth. We feel like we could put two, three of them in behind Jaylan and still get good enough production for us to succeed. Jaylan hasn't had to tote the rock, but this Friday it wouldn't surprise me if that is one of those games," Calhoun said. "Clarke Central just doesn't give up the big play. So we're going to have to grind out some first downs and put some drives together. I think Jaylan is getting ready for that type of game on Friday night."
A former Trojan star athlete and assistant coach, Jones is in his second season as the Clarke Central defensive coordinator and he is definitely well-versed with Carrollton football and what Thomas brings to the table.
"It should be fun. My sophomore year he was my outside linebackers coach and he actually coached me in track from the time I started running until he left. He's a good family friend. It should be fun seeing coach Jones on Friday night," Thomas said. "But when we hit the field, all that goes away. All that matters is who we're playing."
As a senior and three-year starter that has been a part of runs to the second round in 2015 and state quarterfinals a season ago, Thomas understands that this is it for him and the Trojan seniors. He wants to make sure that when the ride does end, he leaves with no regrets.
"Everything is sinking in now. It's win or go home. Now I never know when I'm going to play my last snap, my last game because everybody in the playoffs is playing for one goal — to win a state championship," Thomas said. "Anything can happen in the playoffs, so I'm taking every practice like it's my last practice, every film session like it's my last film session and every rep like it's my last rep."
It's a message the senior leader is preaching to not only the seniors this week, but the entire team. The mission is Game 15, but Thomas stressed how you can't get there without winning Game 11.
"We're just focused on the next game because it's the most important game. It's win or go home," Thomas said. "We just want to keep going 1-0 each week. If we can keep going 1-0, we can make a run at this. We're really getting our players and getting their minds changed to where we can't come in next week and get it right if we lose a game. We either get it right now or we don't have a next week."
Friday night's contest will broadcast live on KISS 102.7 FM.