By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
June 21, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Coach Bill Stewart said repeatedly last spring that he was looking for more leaders for this year’s football team. One guy looking to take on a leadership role this fall is senior outside linebacker JT Thomas.
||Linebacker JT Thomas returns an interception during last year's win at Rutgers.
David Miller photo
Right now, Thomas is saying and doing all the right things.
“We’re finding the guys that want to step up and who are the guys that follow,” Thomas said last week from the Puskar Center. “I’m not dubbing myself a leader but I’ve always been that guy – I’ve always been the guy that people can look up to to lead the way and do the right thing on and off the field.”
Now a senior, Thomas says he’s more locked in than ever.
“I know I’m a lot more focused than I was when I was a junior,” he admitted. “I know this is my last time playing as a Mountaineer. I’m taking a different approach and I’m pretty sure the rest of the seniors are, too.
“You don’t have to say too much to the older guys because the guys kind of know what level we have to work at to get where we want to be,” Thomas said. “We’re all working well, bonding well and the chemistry is there.”
Thomas believes the talent is there to contend for a Big East title, something West Virginia players have not tasted since Thomas’ freshman year in 2007.
“We took our lumps, bumps and bruises two years ago – 9-4 and 9-4 - now it’s time for us to put it all together,” Thomas said. “It’s everybody’s last chance to have that season that we all want to have. We certainly have the talent to do it because I’ve been on past teams that have been less talented but have won more games. So we have to find whatever it is they had and make it work for us.”
Thomas explains that winning involves more than just having good football players.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve had 11-win, 10-win talent. We’ve been getting talent year in and year out and there’s no reason why we can’t win 10 or more games,” he predicted.
West Virginia’s defense returns virtually intact from 2009. Only two starters (Reed Williams and Nate Sowers) are gone from last year’s defense that played extremely well at times.
“I feel like I’ve been playing with these guys forever,” Thomas says.
West Virginia’s defense should be good enough keep the Mountaineers in every game this year, so it will be a matter of the offense jelling under first-year starting quarterback Geno Smith. According to Thomas, Smith has been performing well during seven on sevens and now it’s a matter of the sophomore maturing into the leader the team needs at the quarterback position.
“Geno is looking good throwing the ball but he still has some work to do developing as a leader. That will come in time,” Thomas said. “The kid is only a sophomore and he’s going to have a big burden on his shoulders and he’s going to have to carry that. He’ll grow as the season goes on.”
Smith’s health has been an issue almost since the day he arrived on campus last year, but Thomas says Geno has been looking great so far in off-season workouts.
“I don’t know personally, but he looks 100 percent,” Thomas said.” He’s throwing the ball around real well, but that’s something he’s always been able to do.”
Smith has the luxury of being surrounded by plenty of offensive weapons. Running back Noel Devine’s decision to return for his senior season was a big boost to the offense. And two-year starting slot receiver Jock Sanders is another reliable veteran player Smith can count on this season.
“Jock and Noel have been embedded in that offense for the last three years and they know exactly what’s going on,” Thomas said. “You’ve got guys out there around him who know what they’re doing and now Geno has to orchestrate it. He doesn’t have to do too much, just hand that thing off … or put it in the right hands of who needs to get it. Everybody can do something with the ball on offense.”
Thomas says that could also include a bunch of talented freshmen. He has been very impressed with what he’s seen of the new players so far.
“Travis Bell looks real good at safety. All of the young quarterbacks look good. Jeremy Johnson is really fast and Ishmael Banks looks good at corner,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to say his name in vain, but Jeremy Johnson looks something like Pat White when he tucks the ball and runs, and Barry (Brunetti) is more a kid who can throw the ball real well. Ivan McCartney looks good at receiver, too.
“You’ve got a lot of weapons out there on offense and that does nothing but make us a better defense,” Thomas added.
Because the coaches are not permitted to supervise the team’s summer conditioning work, Thomas believes it’s extra important for the upperclassmen to show the younger players how to do things the right way so when the entire team assembles for fall camp in August everyone is on the same page.
“We’re rolling the young guys right in. We’re sticking some of them with the twos here and they and they’re all getting coached up by the rest of us,” Thomas said. “The guys look more focused this summer. I think we’re heading in the right direction. We’ve still got a couple of guys that we’ve got to get to buy in, but we’re working that as a team getting guys going in the right direction.”
Thomas hopes the right direction ultimately leads to another Big East title. It would be a great way for the seniors to cap their careers.
“People are all starting to realize, ‘Hey, we’re seniors and this is our last time to do what we need to do before we get out of here.’”