The Future is Now
By Steve Stone for MSNsportsNET.com
August 14, 2008
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Linebacker J.T. Thomas has been waiting in the wings for the last two seasons, hoping to find a starting role in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 stack defense.
The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native appears to have broken through this year, designated as the team’s weak side or Will linebacker. Based on the defense’s performance so far in fall camp, Thomas is excited to be part of a group ready to prove all of its doubters wrong.
“It’s going great, man,” Thomas said when asked how camp has been so far for the defense. “It feels like we’re getting better everyday and that shows good signs for our defense.”
WVU enters the 2008 season with a revamped group of defenders who are high on talent but low on experience. Raw skills and immense athleticism are one of the many attributes of Jeff Casteel’s defense as a slew of freshmen have an opportunity to earn some playing time within all of WVU’s interchangeable parts.
Thomas believes the group’s ability to work cohesively can negate any of the so-called flaws associated with not having big-game experience.
“It all depends on how well we gel together,” Thomas admitted. “We lost a lot of people and we had a lot of good teachers in front of us (last season). So the guys that left got on us last season and now it’s our time to use some of the things they taught us.”
As a redshirt sophomore, Thomas has been waiting to crack the first-team depth chart since entering Morgantown in the fall of 2006. He was awarded a medical redshirt in his freshman season after suffering an ankle injury, but was also honored with the Danny Van Etten Award by the WVU coaches as the scout team player of the year.
The diligent work he put in battling the Mountaineers’ everyday starters appears to be paying off. Now Thomas can relish his role as the “help man” in WVU’s stack defense, and can put his three years of knowledge to use by helping some of the younger players.
“Our defense might be unique, but it’s all we know,” Thomas admitted. “It almost comes natural to us. It’s tough to pick up at the beginning. That’s why the older guys have to do a good job of teaching the young guys. But once you get it, you got it.”
Although he says high school defense is much different than that of the college game, Thomas gained experience with the 3-3-5 when he played it his junior season at Blanche Ely high school. The team switched to a more conventional defense his senior year, where he participated in the BCAA/Sun Sentinel All-Star Game and was named a Florida Top 100 recruit by Rivals.com.
Working with this year’s linebacker unit has been fun for Thomas. Known as a blue-collar performer on the field, the preseason third-team all-BIG EAST player enjoys the closeness of the group away from Milan Puskar Stadium.
“We all hang out, especially me and Mortty (Ivy),” Thomas said of the linebackers. “I always go to see Mortty or he’ll come over and see me. We’re pretty tight off the field, too, and I think that has a lot to do with us bonding on and off the field. It’s a good thing.”
Further promoting some of his closest friends on the team, Thomas believes the unit is so deep that some of the third-stringers could come in and play with the first team defense.
“I don’t think people realize our third group of linebackers can jump in with the ones,” Thomas said. “I think we’re very deep at the linebacker position, and I’m fortunate to be a part of this talented group.”
In order for WVU to merit its preseason Top 10 ranking, the defense must do its best to feed off last season’s performance and continue its dominance in the BIG EAST. With a handful of solid starters gone from last year, such a task might look more optimistic than achievable.
But Thomas is adamant about the team’s aptitude on the defensive side of the ball. He remains oblivious to the lack of notoriety with this season’s bunch, and believes their progression from the spring will help them enjoy another successful season.
“It feels like déjà vu all over again,” Thomas said when asked if this year’s defense is getting less attention. “Last year I was in the same situation. From last year to this year it’s a lot of experience. I feel like we got a lot better as a defense in the spring. This summer has been great being down with (strength and conditioning coach) Mike Joseph and the rest of the guys.”
Another characteristic of a young but talented defense is a group full of boundless potential. Such holds true for this year’s squad, and Thomas believes that it might be hard for people to take notice when the offense garners national recognition for having so much star power.
“We play on a really, really good football team,” Thomas said. “It’s not really taking notice because you can go and take notice on the opposite side of the ball. The biggest thing I see is we have so much room to get better. People say we’re good right now but we have so much room to get better this year.”
Instead of worrying about whether the offense steals any of the limelight, Thomas cares about how much of a challenge it provides on the practice field. He thinks the development of the defense has been spurred by going against such a powerful offense.
“That’s definitely why,” Thomas admitted. “You go to tackle Noel (Devine) or tackle Jock (Sanders) and everyone else seems slow.”
Last season, Thomas saw action in 10 games and chalked up 19 tackles, three tackles-for-losses and one pass-breakup as the weak side linebacker. The bigger picture showed how well he could instinctively take on blockers, play effectively in coverage schemes and blitz the quarterback.
With his experience comes leadership, and the second-generation Mountaineer linebacker believes the most critical part for his cast is to create turnovers and give the offense an advantage in field position.
“Anytime we can get the ball back in No. 5’s hands it’s a good thing,” Thomas said. “Our turnovers will be a key to how good we are this year and that’s why we work on it all the time in practice.
“Turnover drills are something we do everyday. I just think it’s very important to the game of football. Anytime you can get a sudden change or turnover, it can really help the team.”
The young, enormously skilled defenders in the Old Gold and Blue will soon get ready to hold up their end of the deal and provide all the right answers to the questions asked about the loss of last season’s seven starters. Their play this season will certainly determine WVU’s fate as it starts another season with high anticipation.
And with such a youthful group comes the promise of a bright future, one that the Mountaineers can build on so they can continuously be a force in the BIG EAST.
But according to Thomas, there is no need to think about the future. The defense truly believes that the future is now.
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