NORMAN, Okla. — A year earlier, Jordan Thomas didn’t think he would be in his current position. The Oklahoma cornerback entered his junior season as one of the top returning cornerbacks in college football. Many, including Thomas, figured three seasons with the Sooners would be enough of an apprenticeship before heading to the NFL.
Plans change and can do so quickly.
“It actually is my last college camp,” Thomas said. “I don’t have any more after this. I couldn’t come back if I wanted to.”
The Sooners are glad to have Thomas back. He’s a two-time All-Big 12 cornerback with 7 career interceptions. Every coverage Oklahoma calls is predicated on Thomas eliminating one side of the field. The difference between winning a third straight conference title and returning to the College Football Playoff could rest on Thomas’ shoulders.
Thomas welcomes that kind of pressure. He admitted in December that he wasn’t ready to be a professional. There’s a maturity required to succeed at that level. Thomas, by his own admission, hadn’t shown it.
Thomas’ kind of self-evaluation is rare. Most draft-eligible players catching so much as a whiff that they could play in the NFL quickly make the jump. The draft grade doesn’t matter. Somehow there’s a belief that two months of workouts can change the perception created by two years of games.
Thomas knows about perception all too well. One of the biggest reasons his professional stock dipped was off-the-field problems. There was a half-game suspension in 2015 to start the season, a full game suspension two games later vs. Tulsa and an arrest for failing to pay a speeding ticket to end the year. In 2016, a summer arrest for assault and public intoxication. The charges were dismissed. The reputation Thomas has built remains.
The Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented annually to college football’s top defensive back, cut the Oklahoma defensive back from its preseason watch list. The Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, which is headquartered about 30 minutes north of Oklahoma’s campus, bestows the award.
— John Shinn (@john_shinn) August 12, 2017
Thomas understands the reputation he’s created.
“It’s life. I’m young, I’m in college,” Thomas said. “You can’t say everyone in this room is perfect and no one’s ever made a mistake. It’s all about growth from this point on. Whatever happened is in the past. What I’ve learned, and you can see it from that point until today, is the strides I’ve made as a person.”
A different person
Those who know Thomas best claim a different person emerged from the controversy. The guy who once kept to himself stays after practice to work with young defensive backs. The focus that used to wane during the grind of preseason practice now remains locked in.
“He stepped up big time from last year to this year,” Oklahoma sophomore cornerback Parnell Motley said. “I guess this year is going to be a great year for him. He’s a vocal leader and he actually pushes the young DBs to keep training hard and keep doing the best they can do.”
Maybe it just took Thomas running out of chances for it all to click. Oklahoma defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks confessed he and Thomas have had many talks about the cornerback’s future. With every mistake, Thomas created long-term messes that are difficult to clean up.
“As talented as JT is, it just took him awhile to really grow up and say, ‘Hey, I’m playing with my career at the next level, I’m playing with my career here at OU, because one more of these things I may not be on the roster,’” Cooks said. “So I just think guys eventually wake up. Some guys you hope never have to go through that to wake up, but I think JT’s matured, he’s recognized things he’s done in the past and to be honest with you, he’s a senior now. He’s got bigger goals and I don’t think he’s gonna put himself in position to ruin what he thinks his future can be.”
Thomas’ future can be very bright. He knows he’s about to emerge from the tunnel that represents his college career. What’s waiting for him after that comes down to the next six months.
“When you get to your senior year you’re like, there’s no more years after this. You either continue in school or you go on to the next level,” Thomas said. “I put so much time in it that I obviously want to get to the next level. All that considered, it’s a journey.”