The voice at the other end of the line can be relentless, but that’s the point. Be relentless, Chad Thomas keeps hearing in those conversations. Be relentless in everything you do.
Up until this point, Chad Thomas hasn’t been relentless. He knows that, but he also knows he cannot afford to be anything but relentless now that people such as Warren Sapp are looking to him to be the rock on the University of Miami’s young and depleted defensive line.
Thomas, entering his junior season as an end, is both harsh and blunt when it comes to assessing a UM career that was launched amid five-star-recruit status.
“Ain’t made enough plays,” he said.
He knows the history of great defensive linemen who have worn Hurricanes jerseys and says it’s “real motivating” to aspire to possibly see his name someday mentioned in the same breath as a Warren Sapp.
What Thomas doesn’t know is his name already can be mentioned with Sapp and plenty of others.
Because at similar points in their careers, they “ain’t made enough plays,” either. They couldn’t have been expected to.
Take his longtime mentor, Sapp. You know him as a UM legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer. Long forgotten: Sapp was redshirted as a freshman in 1991. His second year began with a one-game suspension for violating a team rule, allowing a sophomore named Dwayne Johnson — yes, that Dwayne Johnson — to replace him. Best of all, Sapp stepped foot on the Coral Gables campus as a tight end, dreaming of doing end zone dances like Michael Irvin. He also was doing too much dreaming, since he fell asleep in his first team meeting.
So when Sapp tells Thomas to keep plugging away, better things will come, he’s speaking from experience.
“I’ll talk to him a lot,” Thomas said one afternoon last week. “I’ll probably talk to him today. I got his number way back in high school.”
And the impact Sapp is having?
“Just having the right mindset,” said Thomas, who is 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds. “Just talking to him, seeing how he was out here and what motivated him to play, and putting that together with what motivated me.”
Motivation doesn’t seem to be a problem for Thomas these days. He said he’s working “10 times harder” to live up to his own expectations. This week, Pro Football Focus rated him the No. 1 player in the country among former five-star recruits set to have a breakout season.
PFF pointed out that Thomas had to “deal with more double teams and run-blocking guards” last season. Under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, PFF theorized, he’ll assume “more of a traditional pass-rushing defensive end role and he won’t get pushed around in the running game nearly as often as he did last season.”
Thomas has played 25 games for UM, starting eight, and has just 25 tackles and one sack.
Coach Mark Richt and Diaz aren’t fans of any “breakout” labels even though they are fans of Thomas and his potential.
“Championship teams are addicted to improvement: ’I’ve got this monster inside of me that is always picking at me to try to find something in my game to improve,’ ” Diaz said. “And that’s what we want a guy like Chad to do. If he has an insatiable appetite to constantly find a way to improve his game, then he’s going to have a great season for us.”
The need for an outstanding season increased this week with news that Al-Quadin Muhammad, who was to start at the other end position, was dismissed from the team for violating NCAA rules involving a South Beach luxury car rental agency. Trent Harris was to replace Muhammad, and still might, but he broke a hand in practice Tuesday.
Package that with graduation and it adds up to freshmen playing a larger role in UM’s defense than would otherwise be the case. And that means juniors and seniors such as Thomas have to lead.
As Diaz said, they must “really understand that they are ‘that guy’ in terms of taking the microphone and leading all the other guys. We need them to lead with their play. If Chad just fires off that ball and plays 100 miles an hour, that’s the best leadership Chad can give us right now.”
In truth, what Diaz and Thomas want is to drop the mic. Thomas is an aspiring rapper, minoring in music business, who has laid down tracks and performed in numerous halls around Miami.
Music was his first love. Today, football is his only love.
“As soon as we started camp, I put my stuff away,” he said of his instruments. “It’s time for football.”
If that sounds a little like Sapp, so be it. When it’s pointed out that Sapp had what easily is classified as a dominant personality, Thomas didn’t hesitate.
“I say I’ve got a dominant personality when I’m out here on the field,” he said. “When I’m out and about, I’m kind of quiet, but on the field, that’s like my home.
“That’s my territory.”