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Football: Thomas was ready when called upon

Tim Buckley, Daily Advertiser, September 10, 2013

Sean Thomas

Sean Thomas

After two seasons spent primarily as a special-teams contributor, UL junior Sean Thomas is getting a chance to show what he can do a much-bigger stage.

So far, early reviews have been quite positive.

Thomas has started two games, losses at Arkansas and last Saturday at Kansas State, at free safety for the 0-2 Ragin’ Cajuns.

He’s been busy, too, making 22 total tackles, including 12 solo stops, in the two outings.

UL head coach Mark Hudspeth, for one, is not surprised at all to see the rapid rise from relative obscurity for the product of New Orleans’ St. Augustine High.

“One thing about Sean, he’s very, very smart,” Hudspeth said. “Football is like (it is to) Justin Anderson, to him. It comes naturally. He understands the game.

“Some guys, the game comes natural. And you’ve got some guys who may be big, giant weightlifters, but it just doesn’t come to them. It comes easy (to him).”

Anderson, UL’s preseason All-Sun Belt Conference middle linebacker, has a team-high 29 total tackles after two games, an average of 14.5 per game that ranks third in the country.

Thomas is not far behind in a tie for 20th nationally, something that might not have seemed possible to some considering his role as a sparingly used reserve cornerback a season ago.

With Bill Bentley and Melvin White, both now in the NFL, staples on the corners two years ago, and White and Jemarlous Moten both every-down corners last year, chances to play were infrequent early in Thomas’ career.

But he made the most of opportunities when he got them as both a true freshman in 2011 and as a sophomore in 2012, and he didn’t have a doubt about answering the bell while biding time before assuming the spotlight part he has now.

“Each week I just knew I was one play away from being in a starting role, or one play away from playing,” said Thomas, son of Mary Smith-Thomas and former Cajuns defensive end/outside linebacker Quinton Thomas, who played at UL from 1984-86.

“So you just try to prepare yourself,” he added. “You watch film, just like the starters will, just come out there and be as prepared as possible.”

Thomas played as a reserve in the secondary and on special teams in eight of UL’s final nine games in 2011, and wound up with 13 tackles with one quarterback hurry and one pass breakup.

He played in all 13 games last season, getting one start as an extra defensive in dime coverage during UL’s November win at UL Monroe but otherwise playing as a backup on the corner. He had his first and only career interception in a December win at Florida Atlantic, and finished with 15 total tackles, six of them coming during special-teams play.

Now, just two games into the year, and as UL’s prepares for its home opener Saturday against Nicholls State, he’s already surpassed those single-season tacking totals.

“He works awfully hard,” Hudspeth said. “He studies the game. He’s played corner, he’s played safety, so he’s got a pretty good grasp of the coverages.”

That vast knowledge of the secondary has helped Thomas land where he is now.

“This is not his first time back there,” Hudspeth said of Thomas, who worked mainly at corner but also at safety for a few practices last spring.

“I’m sure (that) had to help quite a bit,” Hudspeth added. “He got a pretty good overall understanding of the scheme, and that really helps. Playing (safety) he knows how to help the corners from when he was a corner, so that’s a big advantage.”

Going into fall, Thomas was listed on UL’s depth as a No. 1 cornerback. He quickly dropped to No. 2, then was moved to free safety.

Before the Cajuns opened Aug. 31 at Arkansas, he was given the starting safety job over Rodney Gillis.

And by the time UL played at Kansas State, Thomas was in such a flow that Gillis – a sixth-year senior who started every game of 2012 – didn’t even get onto the field.

“Coach Willis put a lot of pressure on us in the beginning, in the springtime, about knowing each position, knowing what each guy has to do,” Thomas said of new UL defensive coordinator James Willis. “So, it’s being a smart football player, and knowing what your job is and what your help is.”

And now Thomas is the one telling others what to do.

At free safety, he’s responsible for defensive calls – just part of a transition from cornerback that seems to have come with relative ease.

“It’s just mainly knowing you’re really the last line of defense,” Thomas said of playing safety. “Just getting everybody lined up, knowing all the checks and everything. It’s more of a mental game.

“It keeps you more focused, more locked in, knowing everybody’s counting on you to make the checks or make the calls.”