Ambry Thomas admitted that he was scared in West Lafayette.
After all, it was against Purdue that Michigan’s coaching staff told the freshman to return kicks for the first time.
“I just put it in my head, ‘No matter what, how far they kick it, I’m gonna just take it out and get a feel for it,’ ” Thomas said. “I thought they were gonna throw me out of the rotation after that — I only got to like the 13- or 15-yard line.”
He thought wrong.
Thomas was out there again for Michigan State. He returned a kick for 30 yards just over eight minutes into the second quarter and was one block and a footrace from turning it into a touchdown.
That’s when he made up his mind that he wanted to keep his spot.
And for Thomas, his freshman year has been full of similar decisions.
It started with choosing No. 1 — a number etched into Michigan football history by receivers Braylon Edwards and Anthony Carter. He originally chose it as a symbolic reminder to hold himself to a high standard.
But he tried to return to No. 13, his high school number. That wasn’t an option, likely because of Eddie McDoom, and Thomas took it as a message from God that he needed to hold himself to that original bar.
The other realization, well, that had to do a lot more with being on the field.
“When I first came in I’m thinking like, ‘Oh it’s college, everybody’s gonna be good’, so I decided to take a step down,” Thomas said. “But I realized you really can’t do that. You’ve got to be that dog that you’ve always been.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that his mentor has that “dog in him” too, a mentality that Thomas says, “you can’t take out of people.”
That mentor is Lavert Hill — the Wolverines’ star corner doubling as a teacher for his former high school teammate.
Thomas said that he shows Hill clips and asks what he can do better. As a result, he says his technique has improved. Thomas played both ways in high school, and didn’t fully specialize until coming to Ann Arbor. Now, he spends almost all of his time there. And he’s learning the nuances of the position.
That’s not to say offense is entirely out of the question.
Sometime last week Greg Frey told Thomas that he wanted to work him in on the jet-sweep package. When they went to Jim Harbaugh with the proposal, Michigan’s coach agreed to work on it.
Thomas admitted he wants to play both ways, and he likes the ball in his hands. But when directly asked if he’d be running jet sweeps on Saturdays, Thomas only cracked a grin.
“I ain’t saying nothing,” he admitted, “but I’ve been working on something.”
Maybe there won’t be any sign of it this week, or the week after that.
But Thomas will still get the ball on kick return.
This past Saturday, with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter, the kickoff bounced off Thomas’ chest. For a moment, it looked like the Wolverines were going to scramble to return the kickoff from their own seven-yard line.
Instead, the freshman corralled the ball. He got a couple of blocks before making a man miss at the 15-yard line.
Then he turned on the jets. Thomas got to the 37 and saw empty space separating him from the end zone, but the Scarlet Knights managed to clip his legs from behind and take away the would-be highlight.
Thomas spiked the ball onto the turf in frustration, drawing a delay of game penalty.
He joked that his emotions got the best of him, that he’s seen too many plays now where he’s one man away from the end zone.
“Everyday, literally, I picture it,” he said. “It’s gonna happen real soon, hopefully a big game.”
Thomas isn’t afraid anymore.
“I like going fast,” he said. “I believe my speed is untouchable, no matter where I go in this country.”