Pope is now at Jacksonville State, and Thomas is now a member of Anniston’s varsity, playing receiver and giving the Bulldogs some of the same versatile, explosive ability Pope did.
Anniston coach Eddie Bullock compares the two, and Thomas said he is using Pope as his motivation.
“I’ve seen him do it, so I thought I could do it,” said Thomas, a senior. “I really wish I could be like him, but I want to be better.”
Throughout the first half the season, Thomas has played a vital role in the Bulldogs’ offense and is expected to continue to do so as Anniston (3-2, 1-2) prepares to visit Jacksonville (4-1, 2-1) in a big Class 4A, Region 5 matchup Friday.
However, this past Friday Thomas took his success to another level in a 41-13 win over Handley, scoring twice on rushing attempts, once on a pass reception and another on a punt return.
“He’s that type of athlete,” Bullock said. “DeMarcus is the type that we can play him at wideout, slot receiver, tailback, quarterback. We can give him direct snaps in the wildcat. He plays defense and can play cornerback, safety and outside linebacker.
“It’s hard to match up with him, and the more you move him around, the harder he is to contain.”
What leads Bullock to make the connection between Thomas and Pope is field vision.
Bullock added Thomas looked “identical” to Pope earlier this year when Anniston played Lincoln, “running through three guys” one a single play.
“DeMarcus is very elusive, but it’s his vision that really reminds me of Buster,” Bullock said. “That’s something that you really don’t coach — it’s instinctive. What I try to do is motivate that and explain its in him and that I shouldn’t have to try to find that. It should just come out natural. DeMarcus does a lot of that.”
While Thomas has proven to be a threat to the opposition, he is only one of several on this team.
Bullock also has a handful of athletes capable of making just as many big plays. The fourth-year coach compared the Bulldogs’ offense to the Denver Broncos, saying Anniston has the athleticism to have multiple threats on the field the same way Peyton Manning does. It provides a daunting task for any defense to stop.
“I’ve still got Donovan Lucas, Quin Jackson and Qua Frazier,” Bullock said. “DeMarcus is just part of the puzzle. We need all of them to be ready on any given night because you don’t know whose night it’s going to be.
“Everybody gets a turn. When it’s your turn, make the best of it.”
Lucas has already had a turn this year, rushing for 178 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener. And while the question of “Who’s next after Thomas?” sits on Anniston’s mind, the Bulldogs showed improvements as an entire team last Friday night.
As Anniston enters the second half of Class 4A, Region 5 play, linebacker Keviante Reyes said the Bulldogs’ progression has come from more discipline, leadership and playing with integrity.
Lucas added, “It’s showing in our games.”
The change in play isn’t the only thing that’s changed, though. Bullock switched up pregame last week, as well, saying he didn’t give a pregame speech, he just sent the team to the field.
“We’re at the point now where it’s about intrinsic motivation — what you want to do from within. We want that focus and I saw that focus,” he said. “At a certain point words become redundant. At some point in time the individuals have to take ownership within themselves, and we’re at that point.
“I’m starting out this week doing the same preparation we had last week. Einstein’s definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting change. I wasn’t going to keep doing the same thing and have the same feeling I had after the loss to Alexandria.”
The change may have come just in time. Entering Friday night’s game against Jacksonville, Anniston sits tied for fifth place with three other teams in the region. If Anniston doesn’t move up in the standings, the Bulldogs will miss the playoffs for the first time since Bullock took over in 2010.
“We’ve got to win. I would say we have to win out,” Bullock said. “We’re not the type of team that can afford another loss or two then hope for things to go our way. I’m not that kind of coach. If I know what I need to do then I want to earn it and get in the playoffs myself.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star