In high school, he’d stare into the backfield and wait for a chance to make a play. Because of elite athleticism, Thomas could just be a ‘ball hawk’ and break up passes by relying on his speed alone.
With the Sooners, that’s much different.
He learned that a half-second glance into the backfield can result in a touchdown dance for the other team. It still happened more often than not as Thomas, who has been working alongside top cornerback Zack Sanchez all spring as a starter, battled through a up-and-down freshman season.
“If something big happened, I (feel like I) let down the team,” Thomas said of his first season with the Sooners. “That was my biggest fault. I didn’t care about me. I was just worried about the team. … I was more upset about letting down the team than myself.”
That’s behind Thomas now, and the freshman has also been working on his footwork with the expectation that he will be the starter alongside Sanchez for his entire sophomore season.
Despite the struggles, Thomas said he is glad he played so often last season – totaling 32 tackles and five pass break-ups.
“The experience on the field is like no other,” Thomas said. “Once you get out there and run with the big boys, you learn a lot about yourself as well as your team and other teams and what to expect. It gave me a lot of confidence going into this spring and the fall for next year. You know what to expect.”
Thomas’ improvement will be key for a pass defense that finished better than just eight teams in the FBS, allowing 276.2 yards per game through the air.
The Sooners won’t lose any bowl-game starters but are waiting on five more defensive backs to join next season to go along with mid-year enrollee and junior college cornerback Will Johnson. The development of Thomas and freshmen Steven Parker will be very key to whether the Sooners’ pass defense will be another glaring hole.
“JT and Dakota (Austin) showed steady improvement,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “That’s good. That’s what we need those two guys to do. JT’s been inconsistent, but when he does things right, he’s played well. Building consistency with those two plays is going to be critical.
“. . . That’s one of the benefits of playing young and learning and getting beat some times. You know what to expect now.”
Thomas will have to fight what he called “relapses” – falling into bad habits during tiring stretches in games.
Parker has been playing at both safety spots as well as the nickel – his favorite – and the dime. Hatari Byrd has spent most of his time at free safety.
Numbers have been low though, and Stoops said Oklahoma’s secondary won’t be at full strength until incoming freshman Kahlil Haughton, Will Sunderland, Prentice McKinney (safeties), Antoine Stephens and P.J. Mbanasor (cornerbacks) get on campus. Stoops placed added emphasis on the freshman safeties helping to fill depth.
“We’re caught thin at the safety position. Our production needs to improve, in not just the safety position, but the one cornerback position as well or we’re not going to improve as a defense. That’s pretty simple. You better cover people in this league and have the ability to stop the run when you need to,” Stoops said. “. . . It becomes matchups across the board. You have to be able to win. You may lose some battles but you have to win the war. That’s what it comes down to.”
After taking every thing to heart as a freshman, Thomas will have to do a better job of having a short-memory – something he cited as an issue during his freshman year. Sanchez, Oklahoma’s most experienced member of the secondary, has always understood that a cornerback is going to get beat on occasion.
That’ll be a lesson that Thomas needs to take to heart because that’s the key for his improvement and the Sooners’ improvement as a secondary.
“Once you get to this level, there are no bad players,” Thomas said. “There aren’t even average players. Everybody’s great. You have bad eyes for half-a-second and you’re beat. They’re throwing a deep ball and dancing in the end zone.”