Fresno State's offense gets plenty of attention, but Phillip Thomas would have you know the Bulldogs are also ranked seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense. (Courtesy of Fresno State Athletics/Cary Edmondson)
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Profile in Ownage: Phillip Thomas, SS, Fresno State
It's nine weeks into the first season of the Tim DeRuyter era at Fresno State, and if your thoughts turn to the Bulldogs, they probably turn to quarterback Derek Carr, the younger brother of David currently putting up more than 300 yards of offense a game, or Robbie "Mighty Mouse" Rouse, the diminutive back who scored four touchdowns in a quarter against Colorado. But as the season winds down, we'd suggest familiarizing yourselves with the body of work being assembled by senior strong safety Phillip Thomas. The Bakersfield, Calif., native has recorded an FBS-leading seven interceptions through two months of play, three of which he returned for touchdowns, and one fumble recovery. He's also forced three fumbles, made seven tackles for loss and collected three sacks.
"This 3-4 defense that we run, we learned it from Dick LeBeau and the Steelers, and Phillip's our Troy Polamalu," DeRuyter told SI.com. "Where you've gotta have a guy who's gonna be a difference-maker, you can blitz him, you can have him in pass coverage, you can have him as a run-force player, he can play man coverage and he can disguise everything? That guy, for us, is Phillip."
Thomas is keying a major defensive turnaround. A team that ranked 116th nationally in turnover margin last season is up to 11th in 2012, thanks in large part to a player who spent most of his junior year watching from the sidelines on one good leg.
"I know we've had a reputation here offensively," said DeRuyter. "When you've got players like Derek and Robbie, it's deservedly so.
"What I think people don't know is Phillip didn't play a year ago."
Three days before Fresno State was to open its 2011 season, Thomas broke his leg and dislocated his ankle during a non-contact drill in a Wednesday practice. The injury sidelined him for the entire year, and as DeRuyter's coaching staff prepared for spring ball in 2012, and for the installation of DeRuyter's 3-4 defense, they weren't entirely sure what to expect. Thomas' coaches had intended to hold him out of spring ball, but relented at his insistence that he was ready to get back to football.
"When we first got here, in the weight room, he obviously stood out," said DeRuyter. "He looked like a safety's supposed to look like. He had the right measurables. But when we first went out to practice, he was a little tentative at first, trying to push off that foot. Like many athletes do when they've had a major injury, he just didn't have that confidence. So we were a little nervous about what we were really getting in him, but as spring went on, he really started to show up on tape.
"It frustrated him, being out last year, and I think that probably gave him a little more drive in the offseason. I wasn't here a year ago, so I don't know what he looked like or how much he lifted, but he worked extremely hard as we got here. And I think, you know, being around Tim McDonald, he took to him very, very well."
McDonald is a crucial component of Thomas' story this season. The former All-America safety from USC and six-time Pro Bowler (and father to USC's T.J. McDonald and UCLA's Tevin McDonald) had been coaching high school ball in his native Fresno when the Bulldogs' staff turned over. He decided to get back in the college game as Fresno State's secondary coach, and he quickly struck a bond with his most promising pupil. McDonald had previously coached against Thomas' Bakersfield High team, and he was struck by his development in the intervening years, even after a season off.
"He was a 170-pound kid," said McDonald, "and he'd turned into this 6-1, 215-pound behemoth. You couple that size with the athletic ability that he naturally had, and I knew he could be something special."
On the phone, Thomas speaks softly, and he's quick to deflect credit for the Bulldogs' defensive leaps this season to the new coaches, the team's training program and the defensive enthusiasm as a whole for the new system. He'll cop to his desire to "just tackle people" with a laugh, but he really warms up when dissecting his favorite turnover, his first interception against Colorado. Both Thomas and DeRuyter credit this bookishness with Thomas' strides on the field, and both point to McDonald as the catalyst.
"It's directly affected me," said Thomas, "just having him here, being able to learn from him, to learn all senses of the game. Here's a guy who's done this for many years, an All-American, and had a long career in the NFL. I felt like that was a great hire and directly affected the secondary, and what we've done this year compared to previous years."
DeRuyter is more succinct: "When Tim speaks to him, Phillip listens."
All of Thomas' physical efforts in rehabbing his leg and catching up in preseason conditioning aside, it's his study habits under his new position coach that most impress DeRuyter. The fraction of anticipation Thomas has gained on the field through relentless film sessions makes the difference between a pass breakup and an interception, along with a dash of what seem to be otherworldly instincts.
"There's a lot of guys out there that are athletic, talented," said McDonald. "But Phillip's got a great feel for the game. He's a very instinctive kid. He's the guy that gets it. He's able to pick things up by feel that may not make sense on the board." And he's doing so with a success rate that's infected his teammates with confidence in their new system.
"We've always been solid offensively," said McDonald. "We could always put points on the board at Fresno State." The twist, this year, is that some of those points have been scored from an entirely unexpected direction.
Walking Dead Watch and the DJ Khaled Prize for Undefeated Excellence
We regret to inform our readers that, with the Ohio Bobcats' first loss since last year's MAC Championship Game (cheers, Miami RedHawks!), the DJ Khaled Prize for Undefeated Excellence is off the table for the year. We award it in an honorable mention capacity to Kent State instead, for knocking off previously undefeated and ranked Rutgers in the program's first-ever win over a Top 25 team. Five Golden Flashes defenders combined for six interceptions of Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova.
Sing along if you've heard this before: UMass and Southern Miss remain winless after nine weeks of play. The Minutemen may expect more of the same this week at NIU, and we'd say the Golden Eagles have a better chance at notching the elusive W against UAB -- but look what happened to them against Rice! Speaking of which:
Case Keenum Memorial Pinballin' Hi-Score
Awarded to an altogether surprising party this week: Tulane! The Green Wave's 55-45 win over the Blazers was accomplished chiefly thanks to senior quarterback Ryan Griffin, who broke a program record with 466 passing yards and a personal-best five touchdowns.
Thing UTEP did this week
Did NOT hold its weekly press conference Monday, depriving us of life-giving Mike Price quotes. COME ON UTEP. The Miners are on a bye this week, but that's no reason to be selfish.
In what we are almost positive is a Profiteroles first, non-AQ squads put up a winning record in Week 9 against BCS conference teams, going 2-1 with Kent State's upset of Rutgers and BYU's thrashing of Georgia Tech. Mid-majors move to 22-80 against Big Six teams this season, which, no kidding, is pretty damn good. Forward, the Yarbnalls!
Weeknight action in Week 10 commences Thursday with Eastern Michigan at Ohio at 6:00 p.m. ET and continues with MTSU at Western Kentucky at 9:15 p.m.
Saturday points of interest:
• Air Force and Army continue the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy race at noon.
• Best Big Six upset chances for the week: Tulsa at Arkansas, 12:21 p.m., and dare we say New Mexico State at Auburn, 12:30 p.m.?
• Louisiana fight! Ragin' Cajuns at Warhawks, 4:00 p.m. Cajuns lead the all-time series 24-23, but ULM has a good shot this year to snap a four-game losing streak in the rivalry after losing the last two games to Louisiana by one point each.
• Quality nightcap game of the week: San Diego State at Boise State, 10:30 p.m.
• Colorado State and Wyoming will fight a Border War for the 103rd year, preceded by Friday's Bronze Boot Run.