State of the Hogs: Robert Thomas

Robert Thomas may not be a secret to the SEC, but he wasn't on any of the preseason all-conference teams. He's lurking in the Ozarks ready to strike.

There are 14 Arkansas players who made the All-SEC preseason team as voted by the league's coaches last month. They left off the best player the Razorbacks will suit up for the season opener against Missouri State on Sept. 3.

Nowhere on that list was defensive tackle Robert Thomas. That's understandable since Thomas didn't play last year.

How good is the 6-3, 310-pound Thomas? Consider what sophomore center Travis Swanson said on media day:

"Robert is a combination of Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley," Swanson said. "He's got the speed of Dareus and the strength of Fairley."

Speed, quickness, strength, punch and a low pad level, that's what the Muskogee, Okla., native brings to the Hogs after two years at Coffeyville, Kan., Community College.

Dareus and Fairley were first round picks in the NFL draft last spring after standout seasons at Alabama and Auburn, respectively. Thomas hasn't played a down in the SEC, but he displayed stunning ability in all of his workouts last winter and spring after arriving at Arkansas for the second semester.

Swanson sees Thomas daily, both in the weight room and in one-on-one drills. He's glad he doesn't have to play against him in games. Thomas laughed about that on media day. He doesn't want to face Swanson, either. Swanson is labeled as one of the nastiest blockers on the UA offensive line.

"I appreciate those words from Swanson because he's a great player," Thomas said. "He's better than any other center I've ever faced. When he says something like that, it means something to me."

Coaches have not backed off of praise for Thomas. From line coach Bobby Allen to defensive coordinator Willy Robinson to head coach Bobby Petrino, all believe the bar should be set high for Thomas. He's a standout talent and has performed well in all drills. He's not only talented, but he's an effort player, too.

I was asked to compare him to previous tackles at Arkansas. To be honest, none looked like Thomas.

A list of the best all-time interior linemen at Arkansas from my lifetime would have to include Loyd Phillips, Dan Hampton, Billy Ray Smith and Wayne Martin.

I barely remember Phillips. I was in junior high. What I was told by those with the most knowledge on Arkansas history is that Phillips played sideline to sideline in a rage. Hampton was taller, rangier and more of an anchor in college.

Smith was undersized and relied on great technique. He eventually had to play some outside linebacker in the NFL. Martin was big, strong and athletic and long like Hampton. All played with rare effort and intensity.

Thomas is unlike any of these because of the rare combination of strength and speed. Perhaps he's got some of all of those, much like the comparison made by Swanson of the last two great SEC defensive tackles.

The best thing I can tell you about this Arkansas team is that there is someone on the offensive line that gives him a good workout. Strong guard Alvin Bailey, who grew up about 50 miles away from Thomas in Broken Arrow, isn't shy about taking on Thomas in one-on-one drills. He'll win some matchups.

But no one is going to consistently handle Thomas in solo blocks. He's going to require double teams. That's good news for the Arkansas ends and linebackers. It's the main reason this is going to be a much improved Arkansas defense.

"The three technique (the defensive tackle opposite the nose guard) is the defensive end's best friend," said Jake Bequette, senior defensive end. "I think Robert is going to be huge for us.

"He's got a great speed rush, he's got a powerful bull rush and he's quick off the ball. I don't think you realize how fast he is off the ball until you watch film and see it in detail. He's like a defensive end, but he's a big defensive tackle."

No one around the SEC is talking about the big, new defensive tackle at Arkansas. They are busy downgrading the Razorback chances because of the loss of running back Knile Davis.

I understand that. But I also know what is laying in the grass in the Ozarks waiting on the SEC. There is a cottonmouth ready to strike. Robert Thomas is going to be deadly.

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