Two and a half months after the end of the 2015 Michigan football season, Dymonte Thomas still thinks about all of Jarrod Wilson’s mentorship.
Wilson, who started all 13 games as a senior at free safety, became the de facto leader at the back end of the Wolverines’ vaunted defense. He lined up everyone — safeties, cornerbacks, even linebackers — called out the schemes and kept everything together in the secondary.
But Wilson is gone now, and he left Thomas in control of his old position.
Thomas, who came to Michigan as a four-star recruit out of Alliance, Ohio, had a tumultuous first two years. He moved around from nickelback to cornerback to linebacker, never getting comfortable at any of them. When the new coaching staff took over last spring, he tried a fourth position — safety — and finally it clicked, becoming his favorite spot.
“When you can focus on one job, you can really learn it, and you can really excel it and do the best you can,” Thomas said. “When you focus on one spot, you can really see the weaknesses and strengths you have at that spot, rather than focus on too many. Because then you’re like, ‘OK, at this position I’m good here, but I’m not good there,’ and then you gotta worry about too many things.”
Thomas spent most of last year as a backup strong safety, with redshirt junior Delano Hill as the backup free safety. This year, the two have switched, with Thomas poised to take over Wilson’s starting role.
It’s a bigger one than Thomas has ever had, but he couldn’t have had a better teacher than Wilson, whom Thomas has admired as a leader since the two played against each other in high school in Ohio.
“It was pretty cool, for someone who beat me in high school, that I got to play with him,” Thomas said. “He was being a leader for us, and he was always helping me, and telling me, ‘This is how we make the checks, this is how we make the calls.’
“Sometimes you compete for positions, sometimes they don’t want to help you. But Jarrod was never like that. He always wanted to help.”
Since their high school days, Thomas has soaked up everything that he liked about Wilson: his command of the defense, his job of calling the plays and his loose playing style.
Thomas also credited his father, a former Marine, for helping him become a leader, not a follower. He appears to be having success, since new secondary coach Brian Smith praised Thomas after practice Thursday for his growth in that area. And while Thomas has tried to live up to Wilson’s standard, he has also brought a leadership flavor of his own.
“Jarrod’s really quiet — he don’t really say much,” Thomas said. “Me, I’m really outgoing. I’m always trying to talk. I’m always trying to let people hear me. Jarrod was never like that, but when you really needed Jarrod, you could go talk to him about anything. That was pretty cool about Jarrod. He didn’t have to be very loud or anything.”
Thomas may turn up the volume, but if there’s one thing he wants to keep the same, it’s the success of Michigan’s defense last season under Wilson and several others. For that, Wilson — who still talks with Thomas every so often — has given Thomas some advice since he played his last game.
“You know it’s up to you this year,” Thomas recalled Wilson telling him. “You gotta make the right checks. You gotta make the right calls. You gotta get people lined up. Everyone’s going to count on you and look at you, and you know if anything goes bad, everyone’s going to blame you, so you might as well make the right checks and make the right calls. Get everyone lined up, play fast and have fun.”
It was a big responsibility Wilson placed on Thomas, but after three years of learning, Thomas is ready to be the mentor in his own right.