MORGANTOWN — It is little more than another spring day, the sun beating down on Mountaineer Field where the West Virginia Mountaineers were going through a partial scrimmage.
Nothing big, really, yet if you gazed closely at the sidelines you saw that the No. 1 defensive unit had just left the field. There’s no benches on these days, so players were standing or kneeling their on the sideline, trying to get their breath back from the previous series.
Prowling the sideline like a hungry tiger at dinner time is linebacker J.T. Thomas.
And like that tiger, he’s growling.
He shouts. He stomps. He urges.
For him this is not just any spring.
This is the last spring of J.T. Thomas and he honestly has come to believe it is when this upcoming season will be made or destroyed.
“I’m a believer how you work in the spring, how dedicated you are in the summer will determine the kind of team you are,” he says a short time after working out.
He’s lived it over and over in his time here, seen the fruits that come off a tree that is taken care of in its formative stage and one that isn’t.
He’s thinking fruit like oranges, that come from his native Florida and that wind up in, what else, the Orange Bowl, or something of its equivalent.
“The spring determines what you become in the fall,” he continued. “I’ve been on teams that went to the Fiesta Bowl and on teams that went to the Gator Bowl.”
Those are different teams, teams with a mission.
J.T. Thomas’s mission is to lead his team to the top, do it despite having an inexperienced quarterback by taking the pressure of that quarterback with an attacking, blood-sucking defense.
He understands his role. He’s a senior, going to almost certainly be an All-Big East player or better.
He believes he is a leader of this defense.
He should be able to pull this off because he understands what leadership is.
“You just go out and do things right,” he said. “The guys pay attention. They know who is working.”
Thomas is almost certain to move forward after this year, to take that next big step. You look at him standing there after practice, helmet and shirt and shoulder pads off. His body is chiseled, strong yet lithe.
He bubbles over with enthusiasm for the game, the team and for himself, not in a cocky way at all, but in a confident way.
He isn’t talking about the NFL just yet. He’s talking WVU.
“Nothing less than winning every game will satisfy me,” he said. “Every week it’s the same goal — win a game. There’s nothing like singing ‘Country Roads’ after a win.”
If WVU wins, Thomas will have a big hand in it.
Last year, during the Gator Bowl, we noted that we didn’t know what J.T. stood for but “Jarring Tackles” is what he’s known for. He’s fast and he’s savage against the run and on the pass rush.
Now more is being added.
“He has speed and explosion,” defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel noted. “But it seems he has gotten better in coverage in the last six days than he had in the first four years.”
That could just make him one of the nation’s top linebackers, but to get recognition he will have to be one of the nation’s top linebackers on one of the nation’s top defenses. If the Mountaineers can develop some depth at cornerback and if Pat Lazear and Branko Busick can handle middle linebacker, that just might be the case.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.