Ohio State's Michael Thomas playing like famous uncle; Florida's Jim McElwain dishes
Johnson's nephew, Ohio State redshirt junior wideout Michael Thomas, may soon follow in his uncle's footsteps. Thomas is also a potential first-round pick, and his Twitter handle— @Cantguardmike—hints that he might have inherited some of Uncle Keyshawn's confidence.
While Keyshawn specializes in hyperbole, it's no exaggeration to say that Thomas will be the No. 1 Buckeyes' most important player when they take the field against Virginia Tech on Monday night. While Thomas can get lost in Ohio State's constellation of stars, he's the team's sole proven commodity at wide receiver, a position at which the Buckeyes have endured an epidemic of attrition, suspensions and injury.
"Coaching Mike is what I would imagine coaching a guy like Peyton Manning would be like," Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith says. "As a coach, if you aren't an expert in your trade, you will get exposed in a second. He demands the best coaching, and his drive is to be the best receiver in America."
Last season, Thomas was the Buckeyes' best all-around receiver, and his defining moment came on college football's biggest stage. With Ohio State trailing 21–13 late in the first half of the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, he hauled in a 13-yard pass from receiver Evan Spencer on a trick play, contorting his body to keep his left foot inside the end zone. The play—an end-around with 19 seconds remaining in the half—was one of the most impressive and important of the 2014 season, and helped Ohio State erase a 21–6 first-half deficit on the way to a 42–35 victory.
The catch produced some memorable trash talk. In 2010, when Thomas was a senior at Taft High in Woodland Hills, Calif., Johnson had lobbied schools up and down the Pac-12 on behalf of his nephew. Johnson, who starred at USC in 1994 and '95, pleaded with then-Trojans coach Lane Kiffin to recruit Thomas. Kiffin instead chose three highly touted Southern California wideouts (George Farmer, Victor Blackwell and Junior Pomee) who never lived up to their hype. Kiffin, now the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator, got an up-close look at his mistake in the Sugar Bowl last January, when Thomas torched Bama for seven catches and 66 yards. "See," Johnson says he told Kiffin later, "you would still have your job at USC if you'd have listened."
On Monday night in Blacksburg, Va., the top-ranked Buckeyes will have no other choice but to get Thomas the damn ball. The steady Spencer and burner Devin Smith are gone to the NFL. Receiver Corey Smith and H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson were suspended in July for unspecified violations of athletic department policy. Sophomore Noah Brown, who sizzled during camp and was projected to be the No. 2 receiver, is out for the year with a broken leg. That leaves Thomas as Ohio State's only seasoned receiver—tailback Curtis Samuel and quarterback Braxton Miller both only switched to the position during the off-season. Only one other wideout who caught a pass last season, senior Jeff Greene, is eligible for the Buckeyes on Monday night. And Greene caught one ball for 13 yards.
The big storylines for the game on Monday will revolve around Ohio State's quarterback controversy and Miller's switch to receiver, but the biggest burden will be on Thomas. "He's the only wide receiver playing in this game out of my top seven from last year," Smith says. "That being said, I have never had a receiver more committed to the blueprint I laid out for him to achieve the goals we set for him this year."
The 6' 3", 210-pound Thomas has recently emerged as a favorite of draft experts. ESPN's Todd McShay lists him as the top receiver in the country and as a top 10 player. McShay's ESPN colleague, Mel Kiper, ranks Thomas as the second-best receiver and at No. 21. For Thomas, the attention is nice, but he is locked in on dominating in 2015. "First of all, we have to win," he says. "And my goal is to not just get open, but to get really open. It's not about me at the end of the day."
Nothing could have seemed more unlikely just a few years ago, when Thomas was struggling for attention coming as a senior at Taft High. Johnson says that his nephew's only offers were from such remote schools as Oregon State and Oklahoma State. "Lane Kiffin didn't want to pull the trigger at USC and Steve Sarkisian didn't want to at Washington," Johnson says. "Same with Jeff Tedford at Cal. I told them, 'Either I'm stupid or I'm dumb. I don't know you all [aren't] seeing.' "
To mature physically and improve his recruiting stock, Thomas chose prep school for the 2011 season. But at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, he wasn't even the most highly regarded player in his own dorm room—future Buckeyes teammate Cardale Jones commanded more attention. After Thomas caught 23 passes for 497 yards and seven touchdowns for the Blue Devils, however, the offers began pouring in. He chose Ohio State in part because of the Buckeyes' dearth of playmakers. Thomas played a small role as a true freshman in 2012 (catching three passes for 22 yards), redshirted in '13 and enjoyed a breakout season last year, with 54 catches and nine touchdowns.
Rather than relying on speed and athleticism to get open, Thomas prides himself as a technician and a sophisticated route runner. He's proven to be an invaluable tutor to Miller, helping to teach the former quarterback the nuances of his new position this summer. What's impressed Smith most about Thomas is that he's constantly demanding more coaching, more insight and more criticism. And with every big catch, Uncle Keyshawn has more reasons to remind his coaching buddies about what they missed out on.
"I stick it to them coaches every chance I get," Johnson says. "I sent Sark an article the other day, and he wrote back, 'I can admit when I'm wrong.' "
The coaches who passed on Thomas won't overlook his family's genes again. Star 2017 recruit Keyshawn Johnson Jr., of Calabasas (Calif.) High, is choosing between eight schools, including USC, UCLA, Alabama and Ohio State. By then, his big cousin will be playing on Sundays.
McElwain: Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will play some offense
The Inside Read: You're renowned for your offensive play-calling, but Florida's passing game has been extinct for years. What's your plan to change that?
Jim McElwain: (Laughs) We've got to invent the wheel first.
TIR: You've announced that Treon Harris will be your team's starting quarterback for Saturday's game against New Mexico State, but have said Will Greer will also play. What analogy best describes your quarterback position?
McElwain: (Laughs) We've got two guys that are sevens and we're waiting for one of them to become a 10.
TIR: Junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III might have been the top player selected at his position in April's NFL Draft had he been eligible for it. You've faced some great corners during your coaching career. Where's he rank?
McElwain: Vernon is as good a player in all aspects of the game as I've been around. Let me say this too, the guy loves to practice. He's not a prima donna, which really to me is what sets him apart. I'll go ahead and tell you, but we've got packages for him on offense too.
TIR: Care to elaborate?
McElwain: (Laughs) I'll leave it at that.
TIR: Speaking of defense, your maniac defensive coordinator Geoff Collins drinks out of what he calls the "Swag Chalice." Have you drank from it yet?
McElwain: (Laughs) I'm still trying to figure out what it is, but whatever he's got in it, man, I need more of it.
TIR: What will this team need to accomplish this season for it to be a successful season?
McElwain: Consistent improvement day in and day out.
TIR: What changes are you the most proud of since your arrival in Gainesville?
McElwain: The thing that I've seen is the buy-in from everybody that touches the organization. Not just the players or the people in our immediate office, but everybody involved. There's a lot of pieces that go into a football organization. I've seen some open eyes, people looking to really push the needle forward rather than just keep it at average.
TIR: Like your predecessor Will Muschamp, you coached under Nick Saban. What's the single most important thing you learned from Saban?
McElwain: Working hard and being complete in everything you do in all aspects of the program. You meticulously detail every piece that really crosses your desk. The other really good thing I got from him is let good people do their job. That's something he does.
TIR: It took paying a $7 million buyout for Florida to pry you away from Colorado State. You're paying $2 million of that. What the heck were you thinking when you agreed to a contract with such a pricey buyout?
McElwain: Obviously, wasn't thinking much. (Laughs) At the same time, understand how much I loved Colorado State and was committed. Yet in life there's only certain number of these opportunities that come and present themselves. In the long run, I just felt that this was one of those opportunities that you got to take.
TIR: When Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley made the visit to Fort Collins to hire you, it took a couple of days. You weren't able to leave your home during that time with all the media outside taking photos of people inside and even of the Christmas decorations on your lawn. How surreal was that?
McElwain: (Laughs) Here's how surreal it was, when I landed and went to work the day after we won one of the national championships (at Alabama), I think there was one person there as I walked into the building. Part of what we wanted to accomplish at Colorado State was to make the program relevant again. To see the response to what was going on, you know what, we partially did a little bit of our job there.
TIR: The Florida sun looks like it's been treating you well since your arrival. Anybody in college football got a better tan than you?
McElwain: (Laughs) I got to learn how to use sunscreen.
TIR: You looked kind of orange at SEC media days.
McElwain: (Laughs) The issue on that is I didn't take any makeup and now I know I should, right?
TIR: Your favorite place to eat in your previous job was a bowling alley. What's your favorite haunt in Gainesville so far?
McElwain: I haven't had much of an opportunity to get out and obviously hopefully we do, but there's a doughnut shop on the way to the office where I can get coffee and a sinker (a donut). Right now, that's about the only place I've eaten.
Ron Turner turning things around at Florida International
Ron Turner thought the raiding of his staff was over. The Florida International coach had lost four of his assistants to better jobs. His son, Cameron, moved to the NFL, running backs coach Kerry Dixon departed to coach wide receivers at Florida, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin took the same job at Pittsburgh and linebackers coach Rob Harley left with him.
So after Signing Day passed in February, Turner gave a week off to what remained of his beleaguered staff and went to visit his daughter who teaches in Prague. While there, he got an email from his defensive line coach, Randy Melvin. Unable to reach Turner via telephone, Melvin had emailed to tell Turner he too was leaving for a more prominent job, to coach the same position at crosstown Miami.
"You hate to have it happen," Turner told The Inside Read of the defections, "but in some ways it felt good because people were recognizing what we're doing."
That's happening for Turner and FIU again after blocking a potential game-winning field goal in the final minute Thursday night to stun two-time defending American Athletic Conference champion Central Florida 15-14 on the road in the biggest upset of opening night. While riding the team bus home during a four-hour trip afterwards, Turner proudly recalled all the adversity his program has overcome in the last year. His team didn't lose in the final 90 seconds, which happened four times last season during a disappointing 4-8 campaign.
"It's just huge," Turner said. "I don't know if I've ever been more happy for and more proud of a team than this group because of everything we've gone through. They've competed, bought in and given everything they got to this program in everything we ask them to do. I'm just glad to see it rewarded."
That's high praise from the veteran Turner, who's in his fourth decade of coaching. While coach at Illinois, he won a Big Ten title in 2001 and also went to the Super Bowl in 2006 as offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears.
Turner arrived at Florida International two years ago and had the unenviable task of replacing his popular predecessor, Mario Cristobal, who was fired unceremoniously. During a brutal 1-11 season, Turner watched helplessly as a Central Florida team that went on to win the Fiesta Bowl mauled his squad, 38-0.
"They were what we're looking to do, be a tough, disciplined, physical football team," Turner said.
Thursday night's win was a testament that progress and the growth of promising sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, who had 260 passing yards and a touchdown. He was uneven as first-time starter last year, throwing for 1,680 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
"He played really well at times last year and other times he played like a true freshman," Turner said. "We didn't have a lot of playmakers around him other than the running game. There were times he tried to force the issue a little bit too much, but he's matured so much. He's a different kid in terms of maturity and confidence."
To become better in tight late-game situations like Thursday, Turner has had his team routinely practice such scenarios throughout the spring and preseason camp. "We've talked all year about finishing," Turner said. "Learning how to win like we did (Thursday night)."
Even more impressively, Florida International did it without five starters (including two who got hurt on Thursday night). The other three were offensive lineman who didn't play at all.
"It's unbelievable," Turner said. "Nobody flinched. Nobody panicked and said, 'Oh God.' The next guy stepped in and played."
This season is Turner's third at Florida International, where he has a 6-19 record. The last time he was a third-year head coach, he won the Big Ten title at Illinois.
Turner knows it's way too early for the parallels, but his team does have a manageable Conference USA schedule before closing the regular season with East Division stalwarts Western Kentucky and Marshall. He's cautiously optimistic.
"I can feel the difference," Turner said.
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