VV.com Exclusive: Joel Thomas

He's one of the greatest running backs in University of Idaho history, and owns Idaho's all-time leading rusher mark. He led the Vandals to a victory over Southern Miss in the 1998 Humanitarian Bowl, and in 2004 came back to Idaho to help rebuild the Vandal program. Last week JOEL THOMAS talked with VandalVenue about the running back unit last season, and his expectations in '06.

We would like to thank Coach Joel Thomas for taking a few minutes out of his hectic schedule to talk with us about the Idaho program he is helping to rebuild, and the team he is helping to prepare for the 2006 season...Idaho's second full season in the Western Athletic Conference. He's a legend at Idaho, and the effort he is putting into constructing a WAC-ready backfield may some day surpass his accomplishments on the field.

PH: Can you explain for our readers what your role is as Co-Offensive Coordinator?

JT: We actually have four offensive coordinators, in the whole scheme of things. Nate calls the plays, and that's the biggest differentiation on the staff. We all have a vital role in game planning. Really, during the course of a game, we'll go through a series and make our [coaching] adjustments, make our adjustments with our kids on the sideline, and then after that we're going over thoughts, ideas, things we need to look at, things we need to get out of…you know, it's coordinator by committee, so to speak. Just so happens Nate and I have a couple titles.

PH: How did the running backs do, in general, last season? How did the unit develop overall (i.e. what got better, what still needs work)?

JT: I think our knowledge of our assignments and our technique, from last year to this year, definitely got better. You know, Rollie [Lumbala] was a guy that I definitely leaned on hard this year to do things correct. It got to a point where I would rather have a guy do things correctly, than a guy that would mess things up and something critical would happen to affect our team's success. In retrospect, maybe your explosive plays got cut down a hair because of that...because we may have had a couple guys that may have been faster. Now, the overall productivity of the backfield took a direct hit when [Jayson] Bird went down, then Sherm [Antwaun Sherman] gets hit and knocked out for a few weeks, and Rollie was dinged up most of the season with one thing or another, Jason Brown learning how to play – overall, the productivity wasn't quite what I had envisioned at the beginning of the season, especially after how successful our spring ball was.

PH: What does Devon Sturdivant bring to the rotation next year? Will he participate in spring drills?

JT: I'm still waiting on that, but from what I've heard there's still a chance that he won't participate in spring drills. As far as what he brings to the table – first of all, another running back. As you found out, we're just a couple injuries from moving a receiver to starting running back. Devon has pretty good speed….but he needs to get better at football quite honestly. He needs to have a year where he's healthy…he's got to find a way to stay healthy. Same thing goes for Jayson Bird. He's such a competitor and he knows being on the sideline doesn't help our team. He wants to do nothing but win and play hard. The injury last year was sort of a freak, but he's got to learn how to protect his body. How to fall correctly, don't take the brunt of someone's fall, roll into something, protect his knees. Little things like that which come with repetition. So hopefully he'll start doing some things naturally rather than taking the brunt of the blows. Devon and Jayson are both in kind of the same boat…they have to be healthy in order to help our team.

PH: Will Tracy Ford continue to work with the running backs in '06?

JT: Yes he will. He does some great things in the backfield…he gets through the hole. He gave us a chance to stay somewhat balanced when we played Boise. When we were balanced, look what happened. We moved the ball fairly well, we were in the game for 2 and half quarters…and really the game was a lot closer than the final score. But, Tracy gives us a little something different out of the backfield. That move we made [receiver to running back], as we're watching him catching balls, he always makes the first guy miss. The first guy never brings him down, which is very telling of a good running back. If the first guy brings you down, well the O-line can't block it perfect everytime. It's difficult to be productive out of the backfield when the first guy tackles you…which Tracy's guy never did.

PH: What are your expectations for Rollie Lumbala next season?

JT: I expect Rollie to be leader, quite honestly. Does that mean he plays 80 snaps a game? No, not by any means. But, he has now played two full seasons of college football, started most of one of them, and I expect him to be kind of the leader within our group. I can't say that I've had a leader since I've been back here. The first year we had a bunch of freshmen, [Justin] Wall was playing for the first time really [at running back], then Cliff Mason quit halfway through the season. So this year I'm going to be really leaning on him, and Jayson also…both have played enough ball here. We need some leadership out of this group. And we need them also to be leaders among the team. That's really big this year. We need to have some guys start stepping up and kind of leading us in the right direction. Some of those games we lost by 3 points we win by 3 points, because you have a composed group on the field. You have someone besides the coach demanding excellence on the field, and kids respond to the right kids also. He needs to get stronger up top and all around. He's such a big, physical kid. The stronger he gets, the harder he is going to be to bring down. He needs to get a little faster. I'm not preaching to the choir about this. Rollie is the kind of kid, you can tell him something, he takes it, and he works on it. He's a great guy to listen, and he'll work on his stuff. This last year, Rollie kind of took some heat, particularly from some fans. People don't know the whole story of what's going on with a kid. They don't know if his knee's hurt, if his shoulder's bugging him, and quite honestly Rollie was our only option at times.

PH: Is he staying at running back?

JT: Yeah…he'll play a little bit of H-back also. He's athletic enough that he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He blocks very well. He did a great job actually in pass protection this year for us, particularly the Washington State game, picking up Derting on the blitz. I used that footage on some of my clinic tapes. He did a great job. But, he can catch the ball in the backfield. He's a big body…You get him in the open space with a linebacker he poses a threat.

PH: We heard that Jason Brown was moving back to defense…

JT: Yeah, he's moving back to linebacker. He'll help our team there.

PH: What does getting Bird back mean to the unit overall?

JT: Well, it's 900 yards that we lost. Every year we go into spring drills and come out and we rate our guys in terms of explosiveness, importance to the offense, and big play threat. After spring ball last year he's the number one guy in terms of explosive play. He's showed that on the field. When we lost him, we lost our most explosive player on offense. I really think that if we have Jayson all season we win a couple more games. He does some things well with the ball, he breaks a tackle here and there, and all of a sudden a four yard gain is a 40 yard touchdown. Now, is he our total offense? No, there's ten other guys. His durability is a concern, and that's why were out recruiting and find guys so we won't be stuck in a situation where we have to move a receiver to play running back. That's not a good situation.

PH: Is Tracy Ford primarily a receiver for you?

JT: He's a running back for me. He's been meeting with me, he's in our group, so he's a running back.

PH: It's obviously the middle of recruiting season…what are you looking for in this year's RB class? What kind of running back are you looking for primarily (i.e. any particular skills)?

JT: Speed definitely. Anytime you can upgrade your talent and speed at any position, you're going to help your group. We'd like a guy where if there happened to be an injury again, a guy that can step in and take a physical pounding. There's ideal specifications for a running back, but we've got to find the right fit for us. Meaning, character-wise, kids that are going to basically sell out and do everything they can to get the Vandals a win. But definitely a major factor has been speed for our recruiting class right now.

PH: That's it Joel…thank you and we appreciate you taking a few minutes to talk with us today.

JT: No problem, Go Vandals!!!!

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