'I can just focus on football'
HUNTINGTON - At the end of a long week in the battle for a starting cornerback spot, Derrick Thomas made his statement.
Saturday at Marshall's second scrimmage, Thomas was taking his turn with the first unit and covered receiver Demetrius Evans step for step. Rakeem Cato lobbed the ball high, but not high enough.
The man wearing a green No. 37 leaped high and reached higher, coming down with the ball with one hand. That told a few hundred students and Big Green donors why MU coach Doc Holliday wanted the Penn State transfer.
And why Thomas has been welcomed into the Thundering Herd camp.
"He can play. He can definitely play," said receiver Aaron Dobson. "He's got good feet, he's got long arms, too. He can definitely stop on a dime; he's a good cover corner."
The 6-foot, 181-pound Thomas was cleared for action on Aug. 9, and since the time he was eligible to practice in full pads he has pressed Monterius Lovett for the starting job opposite Keith Baxter (coaches say Baxter's spot on the first unit is not safe, but he is having a fine camp).
Thomas is a fourth-year junior who was able to transfer without penalty as a result of the NCAA's severe sanctions against the Penn State program. He has integrated himself with the Thundering Herd well enough to talk trash with Cato.
And back it up.
"Before the scrimmage today, Cato was at the equipment building," Thomas said. "I patted him on the back and said, 'I'm looking forward to you throwing me [an interception] today.' And he said I jinxed him, because the last time I asked him before a practice, 'How many interceptions have you thrown this week?' He said, 'I ain't thrown any all camp, yet.'
"And he threw an interception that day, too. I jinxed him on both."
Thomas is liable to jinx a few more quarterbacks. Should Thomas start, he likely will help form a secondary consisting of 75 percent transfers. Former Boston College players Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha, who have been in Huntington all summer, have worked at first-team safety from the start of camp.
There is good chemistry among those three. Thomas and Okoroha were high school teammates at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Md., and Okoroha often talked to LeGrande about Thomas.
After Saturday's scrimmage, Okoroha tried to downplay his role in luring Thomas to Huntington. LeGrande wasn't buying it.
"Yeah, you did," LeGrande interjected. "Told him this is a great place to be and we need him here, so he's coming here. That's our guy; we can talk to him like that. The chemistry is there.
"You know, this is the perfect place to be. The chemistry's already here; you don't have to make that with a new team. You get here, you just learn the plays, and let's go play football."
Thomas credits Holliday just as much, though. He seems to echo what a few dozen players have said about the third-year coach.
"It had a lot to do with 'O,' but Coach Holliday came off to me as a really genuine guy," Thomas said. "I could have gone a lot of different places, coming from Penn State and having to sit out [or so he thought at the time], but Coach Holliday really made me feel at home. He was really big on talking about school, about me graduating before he talked about football.
"A lot of schools just basically pushed me for football. I wanted to do something that was right for my family, somewhere I could get my degree and still play."
Indeed, Thomas got a lucky break in not having to sit out 2012. He didn't delve into any other reasons he left Happy Valley in June, but made clear he wasn't eager to weather the sanctions at Penn State.
He didn't expect the four-year postseason ban handed down in July, but he expected the NCAA's hammer to drop.
"Every other sanction or everything else that ever happened, with me watching ESPN as much as I do, I knew something was going to happen," he said. "I kept hearing them say it's the biggest scandal in NCAA history, so I knew something was going to happen. I was like, 'Oh, I didn't want to sit around and wait for it to happen.' "
Apparently, neither did Devon "Moo Moo" Smith, the diminutive but fleet-footed receiver who also left Penn State in June and followed Thomas to Marshall. Smith became eligible at MU on Thursday, but likely will take his available redshirt season and play in his senior year in 2013.
Smith played with Okoroha and Thomas at Eleanor Roosevelt before transferring to nearby Westlake High.
"He's basically trying to get himself back together, back in the midst of things, basically school," Thomas said of Smith. "He's going to sit out a year. He's just trying to get himself back together with school and stuff. He should be on the practice field full-time by the middle of next week."
Okoroha said he and his pals tried to get cornerback Stephon Morris to come from Penn State, but Morris will stay put and help rebuild the Nittany Lions. So that leaves Thomas to battle for a job in the retooled-on-the-fly Marshall secondary.
And to get away from the disturbing events in Happy Valley.
"It was a lot of chaos," he said. "I miss the guys there, we all came in together, but I just had to do what is best for me. I feel confortable here, I don't get as many of these questions I'm getting now. It's a new place and I can just focus on football."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.