The former Oxford running back’s journey has had its challenges, like the nagging injuries that slowed the start to his senior season. But the toughest part?
Yeah, recruiting, and it’s not so much the media crush that surrounds a major recruit. It’s the decision-making process and what has come with it since Thomas committed to Auburn on Aug. 2, 2013.
“Everybody doubted me,” Thomas said Wednesday, minutes after being named Alabama’s 32nd Mr. Football. “Everybody was, why are you choosing Auburn right now? They had a terrible season, terrible staff or whatever, stuff like that.
“But you know, it’s good, because I can just rub it in everybody’s face now. They went all the way to the championship.”
Assuming Thomas honors his commitment on signing day -- and the blue-and-orange bow tie he wore to the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Mr. Football banquet Wednesday sure made that look likely -- the marriage between him and Auburn has never seemed more perfect.
The program he committed to back in August is no longer coming off a 3-9 season, its worst in 60 years. It’s the team that matched college football’s biggest turnaround under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, going 12-2 with an SEC title and national runner-up finish.
Thomas is now the second Mr. Football in a row to pick Auburn, following rising sophomore quarterback Jeremy Johnson, and Thomas’ arrival will follow Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason’s early exit for the NFL draft.
Mason just broke Bo Jackson’s single-season school record with 1,816 rushing yards in Malzahn’s system, leading the nation’s top rushing attack.
Now, picture Thomas in that system.
Picture the guy who has broken as many as nine tackles in a single play, breaking just one or two tackles against a spread-out defense.
Imagine the big-play possibilities.
“He fits perfect,” Oxford coach Ryan Herring said. “I think it’s a round peg in a round hole, him going to Auburn. I really do.
“He’s not exactly your Earl Campbell, run-everybody-over guy, even though he can do that. He’s not just a speed guy that can’t break tackles. He’s got a great mix of a bull, a lion and a cheetah.”
As Tiger fans like to say in Jordan-Hare Stadium, welcome to the jungle.
And a well-run read option, complete with a quarterback running threat to balance out what defenders are lined up in the box, seems well-suited for a running back with Thomas’ combination of skills. It just takes one, maybe two broken tackles in space.
Such prospects for a generational talent who doesn’t appear close to changing his mind on his college choice are enough to open at least one mind in a state of rival fan bases.
“I’ve always grown up an Alabama fan,” Herring said. “But I just think he’s a great fit at Auburn, with what they do offensively.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.