In assessing playing time and substitution patterns in the linebacking corps, Thomas dropped this observation: "One thing about the linebackers is, we don't have a depth chart. We just come to practice every day and work hard."
Say again? It's a foregone conclusion that Thomas and Mortty Ivy will man the outside backer spots. And only the injury questions surrounding Reed Williams makes the picture at the middle spot hazy. And even there, it's evident that Pat Lazear will be the starter if Williams can't go. Najee Goode and Anthony Leonard back up inside, and John Holmes and Ovid Goulbourne, Archie Sims and Jim Lewis provide quality and quantity depth on the exterior. No depth chart?
A further examination of Thomas comment, however, reveals the thinking behind his statement. He and his teammates approach each practice as a new opportunity, and don't concern themselves with which group they are with during unit drills or scrimmage work. That, along with the natural talent they possess, has made the linebackers the best performing group of players on the team to date.
Of course, players such as Thomas and Ivy are going to be on the field for the first defensive snap of the season against Villanova, and are likely to remain there throughout the season. In that respect, a depth chart exists, even if the coaches aren't willing to say so just yet. But in another respect, it doesn't. Thomas and his teammates don't play, or practice, as if anything has been decided.
Exhibit A is Williams' situation. Dressed in a green jersey, which restricts him from some full contact situations, Williams has run with the first group during many practice periods. In full-scale scrimmage sessions, however, Lazear, and at times, Leonard and Goode, see action. This mix and match has given the coaches the chance to look at different combinations of players on the field, and allows them to evaluate the best match-ups and groupings available.
Another factor that has contributed to the linebackers' dominance is their unwillingness to declare a job "good enough". Despite holding the offense to just three scores during Saturday's scrimmage action, Thomas was not satisfied with the results.
"There were a lot of things that you guys might not see that I know we can do better," he said to assembled reporters afterward. "Over time, we'll become better and more experienced, and we'll become a better defense. We need to get better with picking up guys off of [our] blitzes, making sure the cut back is covered, communications, things like that."
Blessed with talent himself, Thomas is also quick to give credit for the same on the offensive side of the ball. He remembers what many forget – the other guys are out there trying too.
"Sometimes you forget that we're playing against some great guys on offense," he said in analyzing the success and failure of plays. "Guys like Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, sometimes they make a play, too. A lot of people don't realize that Jock is as great as Noel – and I really believe that. And it's tough when Noel gets behind big Greg Isdaner, it's like you're blind. You have to try to find him, and that's after you deal with the guy in front of you, separate, get off the block and try to force the ball to come to you."
Despite all those challenges, the defense in general and the linebackers in particular have played very well during the preseason, and have done so without one of the advantages that defenders typically have – a thorough knowledge of the offense's plays. After seeing an offense every day through the course of two or three seasons, the defense often knows what's coming, and is able to "play the play". However, with the modifications made by the offense prior to the spring and fall, they aren't enjoying that edge.
"It's definitely different," Thomas observer. "Coach Jeff Mullen is a mastermind. A lot of the plays they run, we don't even see them coming, so it's not like it was the past year or two. Kudos to Coach Mullen -- I think he is great over there on offense."
Thomas clearly isn't one to rest on his accomplishments to date. He's generous in doling out praise to the accomplishments of others, but doesn't talk up the accomplishments of the linebackers. However, he did let slip one comment that indicates he knows what they could achieve.
"This year should be great for all the linebackers. Playing next to Mortty and Reed and all of them, it should be great."