Ambry Thomas didn’t mince words.
When asked about his speed last Thursday, the junior defensive back had a simple response: “I’m the fastest guy on the team. Not many guys faster than me in the NCAA. Just keeping it real.”
A reporter asked a follow-up about Thomas’ 40-yard dash. He then launched into an explanation about how his time was “pretty fast,” but his real pride lies in his in-game, not straight-line, speed.
“People can run fast,” Thomas said. “But can you play fast? I play fast.”
Ironically, Thomas’ ability to play fast once held him back from becoming a main contributor on the Michigan football team. Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s press man scheme requires technique and patience from its defensive backs. Those are two things that can become lost if you rely solely on your speed — as was the case for Thomas.
Last year against Ohio State, the game slipped away as the secondary struggled to keep up with the Buckeyes’ speedy receivers. Thomas, unquestionably a quicker corner, still didn’t come into the game — a testament to the flaws he still needed to iron out.
But now, teammates and coaches say Thomas has stepped up his game and come on as a player who could be a major contributor on a secondary that has a lost several key contributors — including cornerbacks David Long and Brandon Watson.
“The sky is the limit for that guy,” said cornerbacks coach Michael Zordich on Tuesday. “He’s really had a great spring. … His technique and his patience with the line of scrimmage and the fact that he knows that he has the opportunity to start. He’s really embraced that role and he is becoming a leader.”
Thomas knew at the end of last season that his role was going to increase no matter what — even if Long or senior defensive back Lavert Hill both stayed. In that, Thomas wanted to take the new guys under his wing, just as the veterans had done for him when he was a freshman.
It’s a role Thomas has wanted to have from the beginning, but now it’s also one he finally has the on-field clout — and the maturity — to truly assume.
“I’ve matured a lot on the field,” Thomas said. “I usually, everybody knows I bring that energy to the field but … I really just wanna focus in on myself and the young players, trying to bring them along, because we want everybody to be a part of the team this season.”
Compared to a senior like Hill, the smaller age gap between Thomas and the freshmen allows him to connect with them. Redshirt freshman defensive back Vincent Gray, preparing for his first year as an on-field contributor, credits Thomas with showing him the ropes and helping him learn the playbook.
According to Zordich, it was the end of last season when Thomas really started to improve. He knew there would be a spot for him and he was hungry. So Thomas seized the opportunity and began to understand his body and his limitations — an important development for a player who will so brazenly proclaim his quickness.
Thomas can, in turn, help younger players make the same leap he did. Lots of guys come in with the same kind of confidence Thomas has, without knowing the boundaries of their abilities. Now that Thomas understands that, it will not only help him, but the rest of the secondary as well.
“Everybody was talking about this mind change and slow your mind down,” Thomas said. “I really see it now, and that’s one thing I’ve noticed, if anything. I believe my playmaking ability has always been there but it’s just the mind, the whole mindset that changed a lot.”