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Micah Thomas: Navy's Quarterback of the Defense

Oct. 1, 2017

As a freshman inside linebacker at Navy in 2014, Micah Thomas was stuck too far down the depth chart to earn a varsity letter. Even though Thomas used his size and speed and pure drive to earn some appearances on special teams, he never saw a down of action with the defense.

That is nothing unusual for a Midshipman who has endured plebe summer, is newly confronting the daily rigors of Naval Academy life and is being exposed for the first time to the speed of the Division I game.

But it was clear back then to his fellow Mids that Thomas – now a senior and a position captain who will make his 32nd consecutive start against Air Force – was not a typical, young talent. It was obvious three years ago that Thomas both looked the part at 6-feet-1, 240 pounds, and was learning the inside linebacker role at a rapid rate.

“Micah doesn’t talk a lot, but he knows what he’s talking about. And he was teaching us [fellow first-year Mids] all about the defense that year,” recalls senior outside linebacker D.J. Palmore, who now plays alongside Thomas. “There’s a reason [Thomas] was one of the few freshman who traveled with the team.”

“[Thomas] knows the playbook like the back of his hand. He was definitely ahead of me [as a freshman],” adds senior linebacker Brandon Jones, who moved from outside to inside this season. “He can answer any question I have. He’s really helped me gain more confidence [at inside LB] this year. He’s always been one of the more mature guys on the team.”

[Thomas] was mentally and emotionally strong from the start,” says senior defensive end Tyler Sayles. “I was amazed at how quickly he picked up his position. By his second year, I thought he was playing like he was a four-year starter.”

Now a third-year starter, Thomas led the Mids with 107 tackles a year ago and was named to the second-team All-American Athletic Conference. He is firmly established as the quarterback of Navy’s defensive operation.

Thomas calls the pre-snap signals and makes sure his defensive mates are lined up correctly. He looks for the offense to tip its hand and reveal a tendency that has been studied thoroughly on videotape and on the practice field. He aims to see something that will help him to anticipate the play before it unfolds.

“An inside linebacker has to set the tone for the defense. We can’t just think for ourselves,” Thomas says. “Every position around us matters.

“I’ve got to know what the safeties are doing, what the coverage technique is with the corner[backs], what the outside linebackers are doing, where the defensive line is going. You’ve got to know everyone else’s job, not just your own.”

When the action starts, Thomas shows off the gifts – explosive speed, excellent lateral movement, the ability to shed blockers and split double teams, fundamentally sound tackling – that remind Navy inside linebackers coach Steve Johns of fifth-round, NFL draft picks Adam Seward and Ryan Claridge.

Johns coached Seward and Claridge at UNLV before they were drafted in 2005 by Carolina and New England, respectively.

“Micah’s physical tools are obvious. Mentally, he really understands the big picture. He’s very intelligent,” says Johns, who would not be surprised if the NFL takes a detailed look at Thomas. “Micah is a natural leader who gets guys in the right spots. He can really move for a guy with that size, and he makes a lot of plays. He’s the full package.”

Daniel Gonzales, a former two-year starter at inside linebacker and the defensive captain last year at Navy, where he is working with the football program as a graduate assistant, heaps high praise on Thomas.

“I would say that Micah is everything I wanted to be as an inside linebacker,” Gonzales recently told the Capital-Gazette newspaper.

And to think Thomas, who earned first-team, all-Texas recognition as a senior after switching from defensive end to linebacker at Vista Ridge High School in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, did not even play football in pads until ninth grade.

By that point, Thomas envisioned himself playing baseball in college. From the time he was a pre-school kid in Virginia Beach, Va., baseball was the king in his competitive life. Thomas developed in the Little League travel circuit as a catcher and first baseman and became a consistent hitter with good power.

“Micah was an outstanding baseball player who absorbed things like a sponge. I really thought baseball was going to be his thing,” says Harris Pezzella, who coached Thomas in travel ball in elementary and middle school. “He was a big kid and very athletic at an early age and easy to coach, a strong kid with a big heart and a kindness that made him a natural leader.

Pezzella fondly recalls an at-bat by Thomas during an all-star, coaches-pitch tournament when Micah was eight. He launched a home run off of Pezzella, a shot that cleared the left-center field fence.

“I’d thrown a lot of pitches to a lot of kids, and hitting one over the fence was not even a consideration at that level,” Pezzella says. “Micah hit a bomb. I can still see it going over the fence. I’d never seen that before [from such a young player], and haven’t seen it since.”

David Thomas, Micah’s father, says his son at age seven was traveling with a team of nine-year-olds. His baseball teammates later would give Micah the nickname of “Big Puma,” based on how well he moved for a big kid. Micah also was drawn to baseball’s rich history, as he would devour books and television documentaries on the game’s legendary stars, such as Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.

“Micah was a thinker at a young age. I think that was part of what made baseball a great fit for him – that and the fact that he loves history,” David Thomas says. “He especially loved being a catcher and all of the thinking that goes into that position. The catcher sees everything and is so involved in the game.”

“For a while, I was actually the chubby kid who got picked on when I played baseball,” Micah Thomas recalls. “But baseball is still my favorite sport, even though it’s a game of so much failure. I miss it every day, to this day. I wish I could still play. I played it my whole life until my junior year of high school.”

During that season, Thomas broke his foot while legging out a triple for Vista Ridge’s varsity team. By that junior year, though, football already was taking over and was becoming a collegiate goal for the relatively inexperienced but gifted defensive end.

Before playing football as a freshman at Vista Ridge, Thomas’ only exposure to the sport was as a flag football player early in elementary school. As a young, high-school player, the kid with the quick feet and stout build – Thomas stood 5-10 and weighed 220 as a sophomore – produced quickly

“I just didn’t like football when I was young,” says Thomas, who decided to try his hand at it coming into Vista Ridge to see how well he would compete. “I felt myself adapting to it quickly – the one-on-one battles, understanding pass coverage, who was blitzing, who was replacing [the blitzers].”

Thomas was selected to the all-district team for the first of three straight times as a sophomore. Before his senior season, he shifted to linebacker. He went on to record 147 tackles. By his senior season, Thomas had drawn interest from Navy and Air Force, and considered offers from Texas State, Texas-El Paso and SMU, before committing to Arkansas State.

“[Thomas] was hesitant as a junior about coming to Navy for a visit. I didn’t want to bother him, so I quit calling,” recalls Navy assistant Danny O’Rourke, who was recruiting Texas prospects then. “He was a super sharp kid. He had great speed and instincts and knew how to get people on the ground. I had a real good feeling that this place would work for him, if we could get him to come on campus and take a look.”

“I just wanted Micah to learn how to make a big decision for himself,” David Thomas says. “In my heart, I knew he was going to Arkansas State.”

But things suddenly changed. Head coach Bryan Harsin left Arkansas State to take over the same job at Boise State, his alma mater. Blake Anderson, Harsin’s replacement, wanted a firm commitment when Thomas visited in the middle of his senior year at Vista Ridge. Thomas wanted to think more about the full-scholarship offer.

He and his father flew home. When they got off the plane and turned on his cell phone, there was a voice mail from Anderson.

“The full ride was gone. I was offered the chance to be a gray shirt [walk-on]. I was devastated,” Thomas says. “I was speechless on the ride home from the airport.”

Thomas de-committed to Arkansas State and got in touch with O’Rourke. Soon after that, he and his father came to Annapolis and enjoyed a very successful visit. Less than a week before the national signing day, and after Navy head coach Ken Niumatatolo came to Cedar Park for a visit, Thomas declared he would be a Midshipman.

“Micah already had the body of a man when he got here, with a lot of football tools and intelligence on and off the field,” Niumatalolo says. “We probably should have had him in the [linebacker] rotation and played him earlier [as a freshman].”

As a sophomore, Thomas wasted no time validating his promotion to the starting lineup.

He led the Mids with seven tackles in the season opener, a rout over Colgate. With an eight-tackle effort against East Carolina and seven-tackle days against Air Force and Tulane, Thomas was on his way to a 73-tackle year that included 2.5 sacks.

Thomas earned second-team, All-East recognition that year. He followed that in 2016 with his best year yet (65 solo tackles, 42 assists). And when the Mids coaching staff decided to tweak its 3-4 scheme by incorporating more man-to-man coverage and blitzing to turn up the pressure on opponents, Thomas was one of the reasons.

“We’ve made [Thomas] more of a pass rusher,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale
Pehrson says. “With his ability to run at that size, Micah could play linebacker, defensive end or raider. If he cut some weight, he’d probably be a good safety for us.

“He just has one of those brains. He understands how this game works,” Pehrson adds.

“When Micah was younger, he would drive me crazy, because he shows very little emotion. But he’s just a calm, cerebral guy on the field. He doesn’t need a lot of praise.”

Thomas, who will graduate in May with a degree in political science and aims to be commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, shakes his head as he relives the circumstances that brought him to Annapolis.

“Once I started to grow as a football player, I realized football could get me a full ride to college. The education part of my decision became paramount,” he recalls.

“Navy wasn’t even in the picture until less than a month before signing day. I was scared to go to Navy. But I was forced to make the decision to come here. Looking back, I’d do that over again, 10 times out of 10.”



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