Deep pass, short pass, screen pass: The Tigers got everything they wanted on the inexperienced freshman, who was still less than a month removed from the first start of his career. He was filled with potential but just raw enough for Clemson to take advantage.
Thomas’ bumpy ride hasn’t stopped one year later, he’s had success on the field, earning All-Big 12 Conference honors, but has been suspended twice and was jailed overnight after a speeding ticket went unpaid.
It’s been a difficult circle to travel for Thomas, but he finds himself back where he started: Looking across the line of scrimmage at the Clemson Tigers. This time around though, Oklahoma is here partly because of him – not despite him. He’s a different person too.
“We didn’t have a chance,” Thomas said of last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. “This year, I’m more confident in our team and our production during this whole entire season, we’ve gotten better in every game with exception of the Texas game. I’m just more confident in our guys and offensively and defensively as a whole.”
Thomas didn’t watch film of last year’s loss to Clemson. He didn’t want to. He said in the lead-up to the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve that Clemson was ready. It was clear that Oklahoma wasn’t.
“There’s nothing we can argue about that,” said Thomas, who was one of those players who wasn’t ready – inexperience the most obvious culprit.
That’s not the case anyone. Thomas can’t use that excuse, and with a shot at the national championship on the line, No. 4 Oklahoma has no excuse for not being ready for the national semifinal.
Thomas has put in the work to get better.
He’s watched fellow All-Big 12 cornerback Zack Sanchez on the opposite side, studying Sanchez’s risk-reward style – something Sanchez told Thomas not to emulate. But Sanchez’s leadership has been big for Thomas, whose suspension against Tulsa prompted head coach Bob Stoops to say that the young cornerback let the team down.
First-year defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks has had an impact Thomas’s growth, putting all the secondary together and giving the least experienced member of the group better knowledge of where he has help at any given time.
Then there’s just the natural development of the 6-foot-1 hyper-athletic and supremely intelligent cornerback.
“That first year of experience does a lot to you,” Thomas said. “You learn the game a lot more and you learn the defenses more in-depth. You learn more so where your help is and you can give a little here and there. The game just slows down for you. I felt a lot better this season and made a lot more plays.”
Thomas has seen action in fewer games this season but has made five interceptions – after none in his first season at Oklahoma. He’s actually broken up more passes, as teams continue to look to the other side of the field, where Sanchez has a Big 12-leading six picks.
It’s been a process for Thomas, and one that has him right back where he started.
“You just take it for what it is worth,” Thomas said. “You take what you can from it. You take the little things and correct them and learn from it. It’s all about growth.”