Last summer, Michigan senior cornerback Ambry Thomas found himself in the hospital, unsure when he would next strap up his pads. Recovering from colitis while the rest of his teammates participated in fall camp preparing for the 2019 season - a season in which a starting cornerback spot was finally available after waiting patiently for two seasons - doctors could offer him no timeline on the recovery process other than it would be slow and almost assuredly keep him sidelined indefinitely.
The 6 -0, 182-pound Detroit product, who lost as much as 35 pounds fighting the sickness, was not as ready to concede his junior year as the doctors were. Following a strict recovery process, Thomas not only suited up for the season, but played in all 13 games and at an All-Big Ten level.
One of many highly-rated coverman prospects in recent years from Detroit, the former four-star recruit has all of the physical tools necessary to be a complete cornerback in his final season as a Wolverine.
After making a sizeable progress in both the mental and technical aspects of the position between his sophomore and junior years, a similar leap in development heading into his final collegiate season provides the potential for a dominant senior campaign akin to another complete coverman in former U-M great Leon Hall.
At 5-foot-11, 193 pounds entering his senior season, Hall was shorter but possessed a stockier build than the long and rangy Thomas, and utilized this strength as a more physical player than Thomas is at this point in his career.
While Thomas is a solid tackler in his own right, Hall was more aggressive against the run both in hitting ball carriers and forcing run action back into the heart of the defense. Hall was also superior at hand-fighting and pressing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage but Thomas is able to use smooth hips, quickness and speed to make up for this in one-on-one cover situations - a style that lends to less pass interference calls.
Like Hall, Thomas is excellent in man coverage but hasn’t had as big of a sample size to display his abilities in zone defenses, although his football IQ and spacial awareness should lead to a smooth transition if coordinator Don Brown employs it more consistently in 2020.
Thomas is a dynamic athlete and has more straight-line speed than Hall, posting a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, but Hall was a plus athlete at the position in his own right despite never considered to have truly top-end speed.
Like Hall, Thomas’s hips and quick feet allow for sudden change of direction and he has a more explosive plant and burst that helps him cover the entirety of the route tree, whether closing on a receiver in front of him, trailing a cross pattern or going stride-for-stride with a speedy receiver on a go-route.
Both used their respective athleticism to their advantage on special teams with a return touchdown while donning the Maize and Blue —Hall’s a 76-yard punt return at Indiana in 2004 and Thomas’s a 99-yard kickoff return against Notre Dame in 2018.
It is likely that Hall would have excelled if he was placed in Brown’s man-coverage heavy defense, where technique is paramount. Hall was truly a master of the cornerback craft with strong instincts as he became, arguably, the greatest technician at cornerback in school history. He always seemed to be in the right position and within arms’ reach of batting down any ball.
Thomas began to round into form in the latter stages of his sophomore season in this regard, and made major strides in technique and harnessing his speed as a junior. Still, there is more room for growth heading into his senior season in order to reach Hall’s level of expertise in this aspect.
Hall was an elite playmaker with top-end ball skills, intercepting 12 passes and ranking second in program history in both career (43) and single-season pass breakups (18).
Thomas displayed the same type of game-breaking ability as a junior with a team-high three interceptions, but hasn't been around the ball as consistently as Hall was throughout his career (though the game is more spread out now, with fewer PBU opportunities we must acknowledge).
Thomas has also made strides in the leadership department, and is expected to be a tone-setter for U-M in the locker room headed into its 2020 campaign.
Production-wise, Hall was a three-and-a-half year starter and one of the most prolific cornerbacks in Michigan history from a statistical standpoint. As a junior, he recorded 61 stops, including three behind the line of scrimmage and two sacks, broke up nine passes, logged four interceptions, forced one fumble and returned a fumble 83 yards for a touchdown en route to second-team all-conference honors. He finished his collegiate career with 134 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, 12 interceptions and the 43 passes defended, and was named first-team All-Big Ten and a consensus All American as a senior.
He was also a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award given to college football’s best defensive back and the Bronko Nagurski Award for best defensive player in 2006.
After spending his first two seasons biding his time behind other talented Wolverine cornerbacks, Thomas is unlikely to come close to many of Hall’s career totals despite a strong junior year in which he earned third-team all-conference regards with 38 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, seven passes defended and two fumble recoveries.
Up to this point in his career, Thomas has amassed 54 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, four picks, nine pass breakups, five fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
Michael Spath’s Take: I actually like this comparison, but I also think Thomas has a game similar to Donovan Warren (elite natural talent) and Morgan Trent (elite speed that he used to his advantage). Warren flamed out due to injuries and left Michigan after three seasons to get away from Rich Rodriguez, while Trent was a reluctant tackler. Thomas could be better than both before his senior season concludes.
I felt by midseason, and certainly by November, Thomas was a better coverman than veteran teammate Lavert Hill, and while he will never get the chances in 2020 to put up big numbers, Thomas should compete for All-American honors, joining the likes of Jourdan Lewis and David Long as one of Michigan’s best coverage defenders in the last decade of football.