FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Before they became focal points of any defensive game plans, Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas and Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt were both slight misfits in their own offenses.
McNutt was trying to prolong his career as a quarterback, but didn't find his place on the field until midway through the 2008 season, after Ricky Stanzi cemented himself as the starter ahead of Jake Christensen. The redshirt sophomore didn't really blossom as a receiver until this past spring, when he rose to No. 1 on the depth chart.
And Thomas was a promising receiver whose own game plan was thrown a curveball two years ago when coach Paul Johnson was hired and brought in his spread option, run-based offense. Thomas was 6-foot-3, 229 pounds of talent suddenly stuck in an offense that throws the ball an average of just 12 times per game.
Now, as Georgia Tech and Iowa prepare to face each other Tuesday in the FedEx Orange Bowl, both receivers are standing out for all the right reasons.
McNutt and Thomas are capable of changing the dynamic of a game and have caught the attention and respect of opposing defenders this week. They have big-play capabilities, and the athleticism and speed to catch fans and defenses that may have been lulled to sleep by the run off-guard.
"What doesn't he have?" Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Thomas. "He has great size, a great receiver, and he blocks. He's the total football player. That's a guy, for obvious reasons, that we're very, very concerned about. He's a top-level player. Their people feel like he's in the same category as the guy playing in Detroit [Calvin Johnson]. That says it all right there."
Thomas, a year older than McNutt and more experienced, is averaging 25.1 yards per catch and has eight touchdowns this year. He leads the ACC and is 16th nationally with 88.8 receiving yards per game. McNutt leads his team with seven touchdown receptions and an impressive 21.8 yards per catch on 30 catches.
"Last year, he made the transition during the season, but basically, he was just an athlete running around out there that had no idea what he was doing or how to do it," Ferentz said of McNutt. "Now he's had the benefit of going through a spring practice and going through a preseason preparation where you have twice as many practices. He had roughly 40, 45 practices where he was getting coached and learning the fundamentals of the position. It's just part of the natural growth. What he's done at receiver is totally different than anything he ever did at quarterback. It's just the natural progression."
The difference is that McNutt is one of several options for Stanzi, while Thomas has accounted for 46 of Tech's 76 receptions. Iowa has a more balanced offense, throwing about 30 times a game and running about 34.5. Georgia Tech has run the ball an average of 58 times per game this year, compared to 12 passes per game.
Thomas leads the Jackets with 46 catches. The second-leading receiver has eight. Four different Iowa receivers have at least 26 catches and one touchdown. McNutt, though, has been their most explosive receiver.
"He's a real good receiver with nice size, real athletic," Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett said of McNutt. "When they throw the deep ball, you know he's going to be aggressive going to get the ball. But I wouldn't say he's like Bey-Bey [Thomas], because Bey-Bey is one of a kind. But he is a good receiver, though."
Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said he's watched Iowa's games in the order in which they were played this season, and was impressed with McNutt's progress. Still, Minnesota and Michigan State were both able to hold McNutt to fewer than 30 yards and three catches, and Wommack will use his corners to try to do the same.
"You could see the kid really start growing and getting confident through the season," Wommack said. "They do such a good job of their running game up front that you have to load the box, and especially with us, as thin as we are on the defensive line, I think that really has given him an advantage, as well as No. 15 [receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos]. Both of those guys made a lot of plays because they get so much one-on-one coverage out there."
That gamble of loading up on the running game is exactly what has burned Georgia Tech's opponents, who have no choice but to respect the triple option, as the Jackets are No. 2 in the country in rushing offense.
"If you don't load up on the run against Coach Johnson and our offense, you're going to be in a bit of a bind," Wommack said. "It's the same philosophy, a different scheme, obviously. They really can expose you sometimes in the secondary because you have to load the box to stop the run."
On Tuesday, the teams will have to figure out a way to stop the other's top receiver, too.
Adam Rittenberg contributed to this story. Heather Dinich covers ACC college football for ESPN.com.