Ambry Thomas knew the play Middle Tennessee was about to run. He’d seen it before, a couple plays earlier. He had a feeling he’d be the target.
Then, there he was, reacting, knowing he had to make a play. Blue Raiders’ quarterback Asher O’Hara threw the ball at him and he picked it off like there was nothing to it, halting Middle Tennessee’s momentum in the middle of the first quarter in an eventual 40-21 win.
Mere weeks ago, such a key play from the junior defensive back seemed nearly impossible. But Ambry Thomas had no regard for the odds.
On August 13, Thomas wasn’t even on the roster. That was when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh explained that he’d been diagnosed with colitis and had missed all of fall camp — not practicing, not playing. He’d lost weight. He could only do conditioning and wasn’t cleared for full practice until last Sunday. A realistic expectation seemed like three weeks. Maybe four.
But Saturday, on the first defensive snap of the first game of the Michigan football team’s season, Thomas was out there on the field at cornerback. He was nails in coverage all night, finishing with an interception, a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss.
“It’s a little adversity I’ve fought through,” Thomas said. “And that’s all it was.”
While his teammates weren’t sure when exactly Thomas would return to play or if he’d start Saturday, Thomas knew from the time he was cleared that it wouldn’t be long before he was back making plays. All he needed was a few reps.
Going from conditioning only to starting at cornerback in just nine days would be a tall task for anyone, but Thomas — often heralded as one of the hardest-working players on the team — was up for the challenge. He regained the weight, he got back into game shape and shook off the rust as best he could.
“I was worried about him going into the game week,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow. “I knew that he’s a great corner, obviously, as you can see from his play, but he had a lot less preparation than a lot of our opponents and us as a team. So to see him come out and make the plays that he did, it was just great to see.”
The next drive after Thomas’ interception, the Blue Raiders had the ball on third down at their own 21. Receiver Terelle West caught his pass, but sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson hit him and forced the ball out. Thomas fell on it.
Two plays later, Michigan was in the end zone and a stunningly close 10-point game had become the blowout it always seemed destined to be.
Thomas’ two big plays changed the complexion of the first quarter, but more than that, they marked a shift in mindset for a player who was understandably still apprehensive.
“That fumble recovery and pick, it built my confident thoughts in the game,” Thomas said. “My confidence wasn’t there because in practice, I ain’t really did enough of practicing, I had only been practicing, like really practicing, since Monday, full go practice. It just felt good to get my confidence up there.”
The rest of the game, Thomas was near untouchable and the confidence showed. More than a handful of plays against a subpar team, that was what Harbaugh noticed. Asked about Thomas in the postgame, Harbaugh noted the pick and the pounce, his coverage and his tackling, but the best part wasn’t any of that.
The best part was the smile that cracked across Thomas’ face, the adversity fading into the background as he settled back into his role, playing football and having fun.