Kragthorpe: Utes need cornerback Justin Thomas to age quickly
Searching for a starting cornerback, the Utah Utes are auditioning a player who has gone two seasons without appearing in a football game.
Can you imagine Justin Thomas taking the field Aug. 29 against Utah State, after missing two years of live action? Who could do that?
Like other schools in the state, the Utes have many returned missionaries whose athletic careers were interrupted for two years, so Thomas is not as unusual here as he would be elsewhere. While the athletes serving missions were away from football for those two seasons, Thomas was enrolled in school and working on his skills just not playing in games.
In its own way, that's even tougher, having to watch his teammates play. His absence from the field on those Friday nights in Texas and Saturdays in the Pac-12 makes Thomas' story intriguing as he prepares to face the Aggies at Rice-Eccles Stadium on a Thursday.
"He's rusty, because of that," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "Hopefully, most of that rust is gone."
The explanation: Just prior to his senior year at West Orange-Stark High School in southeast Texas, Thomas was discovered to be too old to compete in the Texas Interscholastic League, with an age limit of 18 as of Sept. 1. And then he redshirted last season as a Ute freshman. He'll turn 22 in mid-September, before playing in his first Utah-BYU game.
So any mistakes Thomas makes on the field cannot be attributed to youth, just inexperience.
Two years ago, Thomas aged quickly. He believed he was 18, but in routinely checking players' eligibility, a West Orange-Stark counselor found records indicating he was born in 1991. His mother could not produce a birth certificate proving otherwise, according to the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise.
"I had no idea," Thomas said after a recent Ute practice. "It kind of shocked me."
His senior seasons of football and track were taken away. The only consolation was that he already had committed to the Utes, who stuck with him.
Rather than try to play and potentially cause the Mustangs to forfeit games, "I didn't want to ruin the season for the whole team, so I just had to accept it," he said. "It was hard, watching other people play â¦ but I just had to work out and grind, because I knew I was going to get to the next level."
Upon arrival at Utah, Thomas embraced his redshirt season. "I really needed some more work, so I was just being patient," he said.
The 5-foot-9 Thomas has improved since last fall, eliminating mistakes in coverage. "That's the kind of development I like to see," said Ute cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah. "It's becoming digestible for him. He's starting to really get it. â¦ What he gives up in height, he makes up in speed, quickness and simple intelligence."
Experience is another issue, considering that Thomas will face veteran receivers such as Oregon State's Brandin Cooks and BYU's Cody Hoffman in September. But going against Utah's Kenneth Scott and Dres Anderson in practice should prepare him well.
Thomas started school late and repeated a grade, not an uncommon practice in Texas. Former BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, who grew up in Texas, turned 19 in high school and 24 as a college senior.
Because of missions, having old players is nothing new in Utah. The Utes' roster includes five 25-year-olds: Trevor Reilly, Mike Honeycutt, Junior Salt, Westlee Tonga and Sean Fitzgerald. BYU no longer publishes players' birthdates, but at 25, Thomas will be among the oldest players on the field in the 2016 Utah-BYU game.
By then, Thomas' three seasons of Pac-12 experience will have overcome those two years of missed football games. He'll have aged considerably, which is good.