Tulane defensive tackle Calvin Thomas was smart enough to earn a spot on the Conference USA commissioner’s honor roll as a freshman. Maybe that’s why he views the foot injury that forced him to redshirt last fall as a blessing in disguise rather than a frustrating setback.
Stalwart senior tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport locked down starting spots from Day 1, so Thomas would have been a part-time player just like in his first season, leaving him with only two years of eligibility once that duo departed.
Instead, he is right on course with many of his 2012 signing classmates as a redshirt sophomore. After returning to practice late in 2013, he has not missed one in the first half of spring drills.
“It (redshirting) let me mature more mentally,” he said after a recent practice. “And it was good being able to watch some older guys like Julius and Chris Davenport and learn from them a little bit more and get back out there.”
Warmsley and Davenport led a defense that finished sixth nationally in average yards per carry allowed (3.19) and 22nd in total yards. It will be hard for Tulane’s defense to match those terrific numbers without them, but Thomas said he is up for the challenge.
He already showed his potential as a true freshman, when he made 22 tackles and had two sacks despite playing only about 20 downs per game. Those totals were almost as high as Warmsley’s 26 stops and three sacks even though Warmsley started nine times.
Last year, Davenport had 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
“He (Thomas) was a pleasant surprise,” co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall said. “Any time a true freshman defensive tackle makes two sacks in conference play (vs. SMU and Rice), that’s an added bonus because those things don’t come easy. I knew he played with great effort and understood the game, but he contributed maybe a little bit more than anticipated.”
Thomas (6-feet-3, 286 pounds) can play both tackle spots but is more comfortable at Warmsley’s 3 technique (lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard) than the nose (right on top of the center), using his long arms to his advantage.
His performance is better than his build.
“He has really good technique and knows how to use his hands,” Sumrall said. “He understands the leverage and the technical aspects of the game. When you do individual drills with him and then you go to the field for a practice or a scrimmage or a game, he translates those drills really well.”
That goes back to Thomas’ mind. He thinks well on his feet, although he admitted he had not quite maintained the academic pace he set at the start of his career, dropping molecular biology for business management or marketing as a planned major.
“Being smart is one of my key attributes,” he said. “I understand what offenses want to do to us, and I understand our scheme very well.”
The next step is staying healthy. He got hurt while doing extra work with fellow linemen outside of the coaches’ supervision last summer. In a one-on-one drill, he felt a pop, shrugged it off as insignificant and woke up the next morning with a painful, swollen left foot.
When it became clear he could not practice effectively early in preseason camp, the coaches and trainers shelved him to let the foot recover. By the time he was able to run well, they saw no use in wasting his year even though he appeared fully recovered by November.
That patience is paying off in February. As long as his foot holds up, Thomas should be an integral part of a tackle rotation that includes true sophomore Tanzel Smart, senior Kenny Welcome and junior Corey Redwine next fall.
“This kid is bigger, he’s faster and he’s filled out,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “He’s going to be a good player for us.”
The Wave went a long way to get him, using Sumrall’s connections to pluck him out of Chandler, Ariz.
Before joining Johnson at Tulane, Sumrall was at the University of San Diego, where he coached Tevin Hood, the older brother of Thomas’ high school teammate, Jaxon Hood.
Sumrall convinced Jaxon Hood and Thomas to take an official visit to Tulane. After meeting Thomas, with whom they were less familiar, they decided they wanted him.
The feeling was mutual. Although Hood ended up at Arizona State, Thomas, whose only other Football Bowl Subdivision offer was from Air Force, made his trek to Tulane permanent.
“I liked the whole vibe, and I liked the fact that I could be starting a new era of Tulane football, and the academics were an upside, too,” he said. “It’s turned out to be everything I thought it would be and more.”