The “Little Big Man” may not have much to say to the media, but he proves big punches can come in small packages.
Senior nickel back Justin Thomas probably has one of the toughest jobs of any player on the Utah defense. His responsibility in essence is to play cornerback without the benefit of the sidelines to help guide and corral the opposing receiver. To complicate matters, Thomas often lines up across from the slot receiver, a position in the Pac-12 that is dominated by many of the quickest and fastest players in college football. Through it all, Thomas has been a rock solid part of Utah's defense with his ability to make open field tackles. He's been so consistently good that he often doesn’t get near the credit he deserves.
“Nickel back is much like a cornerback but in some packages like a 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers) I don’t play very much because they don’t have a slot [receiver],” Thomas explained. “My time on the field is dependent on the offensive formation. It’s pretty much like Tyrann Mathieu’s position.”
Part of what makes Thomas so successful at his position is his quiet demeanor and ability to just sit back and observe what goes on around him. It allows him to see patterns and tendencies out on the field and can even come in handy off the field as well. “I think it’s a pretty cool trait to have,” he said. “It’s not always good, but in my situation it’s very good. I’m not quiet all of the time. I talk to people I know, but if I don’t know you I’m not going to say anything to you.”
Just because Thomas doesn’t say much to the people around him doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about them. He often spends his free time with cornerback Reggie Porter feeding the homeless in downtown Salt Lake or if he’s back home in Orange, Texas spending time with the patients at the nursing home his mom works at.
“We barely get a lot of time to ourselves so when we do get time to our self me and Reggie will do good things with our time,” Thomas said. “We go everywhere 'cause he doesn’t have a car. So I drive and he’s with me most of the day.”
Of spending time at the nursing home his mom works at, Thomas says it’s simply an opportunity to learn from people older and wiser than himself. “It’s a great experience learning and just hearing from people that are older than me,” he said. “Learning about the world really, just how it works.”
One thing Thomas does not take for granted is the love and support he receives from his parents Larnell and Valerie. “She always keeps me level headed,” Thomas said of his mom. “I talk to her every night, every day and she’s a great lady. She’s my backbone.”
As for Thomas’ dad, he actively watches every game and always has some notes and pointers for Thomas afterwards. “He watches all of my games and after I get a text from him every game critiquing me and telling me what I didn’t do or what I did well,” he said. “That’s a good person to have to keep it real with you.”
Another person Thomas says he has learned a lot from is former strong safety and heavy hitter Brian Blechen. “Blech taught me everything I know,” he said. “He taught me to be a quick learner and just grasp everything the coaches say in the meetings. I’d say that’s the best advice I’ve gotten from any player that has been through here. Blech has taught me a lot.”
Thomas says the memories he’s had with Utah Football and his teammates are nearly as numerous as the things he has learned and practically impossible to pick just one. “Oh man, I’ve got so many experiences,” he said with a wide smile. “Since my freshman year I remember Star would throw people around in the locker room and his younger brother is just like him. It’s so many experiences I can’t just think of one that comes right to my head, but it’s been a great experience out here.”
While Thomas has been quiet and a bit under the radar during his time with the Utes there is no denying the large impact his presence has had both on and off the field. Fittingly, all Thomas wants to be remembered for is a guy who did his 1/11th for the team. “Just a hard worker, a grinder and someone who never complains about playing time or anything,” he said. “Just a hard worker really.”