NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
It was the summer of 2009, and Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson had his share of decisions to make.
One of which regarded three-star recruit Jemea Thomas, an incoming freshman A-back who had rushed for 8.8 yards per carry and seven touchdowns during his senior season at nearby Fitzgerald High School.
Johnson could have kept the Queensland, Ga., native on the offensive side of the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option attack. Or, the ACC Coach of the Year could have moved Thomas to defense full-time, where he amassed 140 tackles, three blocked field goals and four interceptions for the Purple Hurricanes in 2008.
The latter was elected.
Thomas backed up future Green Bay Packers draft pick Morgan Burnett as a true freshman “Rover” that fall, registering 10 tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection. Yet as 2010 embarked, the 5’9”, 192-pound sophomore found himself waiting his turn on the sidelines, redshirted in a crowded defensive backfield.
It wasn’t his year, but his opportunity would arrive during the next one.
Thomas emerged to play every game in 2011, starting two while collecting 50 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, six pass deflections and a forced fumble. He also added two rushes on fake punts, and he had carved a role fielding punts by season’s end.
The redshirt junior went on to earn another title in 2012. He was a starter for all 14 contests, recording 86 tackles, a team-leading 61 solo tackles, three tackles for loss, six pass deflections and a team-best four interceptions in the process.
That momentum carried over into year five, as Thomas started each game and finished with a first-ranked 88 tackles and eight pass break-ups. Along the way, he also tallied 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and 188 kick return yards.
And with that, the last of his 54 collegiate games was over. His journey to the NFL draft, on the other hand, was just beginning.
Thomas received invites to The College All-Star Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game, but his reception as a prospect remained varied.
He was seen as a model teammate, working through his redshirt year, then later converting from cornerback to safety when injuries arose. He was seen as a durable, hard hitter, blitzing from C-gaps and enforcing over the middle while never missing a game with injury. He was seen as a versatile defensive back, notching snaps at every position in the Georgia Tech secondary and beyond.
Even so, Thomas was also seen as undersized and outranged, lacking the length to cover the ground of an NFL safety. He was seen as stiff and laterally limited, lacking the short-area quickness to shadow the responsibilities of an NFL cornerback.
He was seen as many things leading up to May’s draft, just not one thing.
But when head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots selected Thomas with the 206th overall pick, it was because the organization saw something.
Perhaps it was the 24-year-old’s potential as a fourth or fifth cornerback on New England’s current roster. His willingness to face off against towering wide receivers on the outside netted outcomes far greater than his stature before, and his body control and ball skills could make jump-ball situations far from mismatches once again.
But as an experienced safety in the base defense, and as an extended part of the front seven in sub-packages, it may have been his experience covering tight ends over the middle that got the attention of New England’s war room. That type of flexibility made him invaluable over his years at Georgia Tech; there’s a school of thought that suggests it could have the same effect on the Patriots in an exceedingly five-defensive back league.
Thomas showcased instincts and competitiveness at the catch point when asked to cover tight ends. Those traits helped him retreat towards the ball to exploit plays in which he wasn’t boxed out.
Tipped passes and chances for his teammates were the prevalent byproduct.
Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio also may have revered Thomas’ capabilities as a nickelback, for he could potentially add depth behind the likes of Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington.
Though this aspect of his game is seen in pass coverage, it’s also realized in pass rush, where he was often deployed on delayed blitzes outside the tackles.
His bend and burst off the back side was a variable college quarterbacks had to take into account.
Defeating the pass protection of offensive tackles isn’t traditional for a safety under 5’10”, yet neither is Thomas.
He functions bigger than his size. That isn’t only seen in the way he runs outside the gaps in pursuit of his target; it’s seen in the way he runs through them.
He warrants consideration as a hybrid third linebacker in nickel personnel as a result.
Whether he’s filtering in as a “Star” replacing the strong-side linebacker, or simply dropping down as a strong safety in a single-high look, Thomas can add another dimension to the defensive personnel. It’s because he plays the part better than he looks it.
He diagnoses and runs low in the direction of ball-carriers. And he also makes it count when he gets there.
Now, Thomas may not be what New England had in mind when cover linebackers went in bunches during the middle rounds of the draft. However, there’s something to be said for the work ethic he embodies in doing his job and then some. He may never be an every-down defender at the next level, but his effort and aggressiveness keep him from being ruled him out.
This is seen on special teams – an obstacle that stands in the way of most late-round picks vying to secure roster spots.
Thomas has illustrated the physical nature needed to make an impact in the third phase of the game. Ever since his first season in Atlanta, his impact has been felt in that respect.
It’s been felt, not only by flying through the placekicker’s peripherals to hurry field goals, yet also by sending gunners flying on the punt-return unit.
And while he handled only 14 returns over his Yellow Jackets career, it was another way for the high school track athlete to get on the field.
It could get him on the field in Foxborough as well.
Hitter, blocker, runner — Thomas doesn’t have a preference. He doesn’t have a favorite position.
“I love it all,” he said in his post-draft conference call.
It remains to be seen if the Patriots have a favorite position for him.
It remains to be seen if he’ll be a factor as a safety, cornerback, a nickelback, a sub-package linebacker or as a special-teamer. As a sixth-round draft choice, it remains to be seen if he’ll make the final cut to 53.
But the more he can do, the better his odds become. And with that, the harder the coach’s decision becomes.
Looking back at that summer of 2009, it appears Coach Johnson made the right one.