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Solak | FSU LB Matthew Thomas has finally arrived

Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

Scouting Notes

Solak | FSU LB Matthew Thomas has finally arrived

Hidden behind the curtains of suspension and injury for too many years, FSU LB Matthew Thomas is finally ready for the spotlight.

Catchy headline, right? If only it hit the interwebs in 2016.

A consensus top-15 recruit in the class of 2013, Thomas was recruited by over 25 schools. He played mostly LB, and a little DE, for Booker T. Washington in Miami, Florida. ESPN had him as the sixth overall prospect in the nation, and the #1 outside linebacker.

Thomas elected to join a 2013 FSU team that would eventually go undefeated and bring home a national championship. Their roster–one of the most loaded in college football history–included NFL players such as (*inhale*) QB Jameis Winston, RB Devonta Freeman, WR Rashad Green, WR Kelvin Benjamin, OT Cam Erving, C Bryan Stork, OG Tre Jackson, OT Bobby Hart, TE Nick O’Leary, DT Timmy Jernigan, DT Eddie Goldman, DE Mario Edwards, LB Telvin Smith, LB Christian Jones, LB Terrance Smith, S Terrance Brooks, S Lamarcus Joyner, CB PJ Williams, CB Ronald Darby, and CB Jalen Ramsey.

So…yeah. Doggone good team. Unfortunately, Thomas saw little part of it. A shoulder surgery robbed him of the last eleven games of that season–and a failed drug test at the bowl game gave him a six-game suspension for the next. Throw in a missed year due to academic ineligibility, and there you have it: Of a possible 41 games in his first three years as a Seminole (2013-2015), Thomas played in ten.

Since that mesmerizing 2013 season, Florida State has cycled in new, NFL-hopeful talent. In the riptide of names like DT Derrick Nnadi, S Derwin James, CB Tavarus McFadden, WR Auden Tate, and QB Deondre Francois, the former crown jewel of the 2013 class has washed up on the wayside, forgotten.

But quietly, Thomas put together a 2016 season that hearkened to the player Seminole fans never got to see. He tallied a team-leading 77 tackles, as well as 11 TFLs, 4 hurries, and 2 PBUs. Always a freak athlete (4.59 40 yard dash, 35.5″ vertical in high school), Thomas’ tape reveals an instinctive, downhill linebacker with the range, quickness, and length to play three downs at the next level.

Hindsight is 20/20–and perhaps a shrewder analyst saw it coming. But I, for one, have seen barely any hype for the revitalized Thomas, so here comes the better-late-than-never headline: Hidden behind the curtains of suspension and injury for too many years, FSU LB Matthew Thomas is finally ready for the spotlight.

What Makes Matthew Thomas Special:

Often, college players who are exceptional athletes play without requisite discipline. It’s the reality of transcendence: you simply needn’t pay attention to the minutiae of your position or responsibilities. We see that with Thomas on occasion.

He’s simply stealing a tackle on this play. #17 has him dead to rights, with the exact angle to drive him out of the play. But Thomas is savvy and flexible–he gets underneath the climbing TE and wraps around him to pick up the tackle.

Watch him slip another block here:

Plainly, he should not be making these plays–and, when he gets to the NFL, it will likely be more difficult for him to do so. But the easy athleticism, the natural slipperiness–it’s tantalizing to watch.

That’s an important question to ask, as an evaluator: will he be able to regularly shed blocks in this manner at the NFL level? If the answer is no (which I’m not sure it is, but for the sake of diligence) a second question follows, of equal importance: can he do something else under these circumstances? Does he have a solution?

Specifically for Thomas’s case, the question is: can he attack pullers with power and effectively plug gaps? And the answer is a resounding yes.

While he prefers his aggressive, gap-shooting style of play–and with good reason–he shows the ability to fill with integrity and power. Given his lanky frame (6’2, 225 lbs), he doesn’t hold up too well in the trenches–but the knowledge and the willingness are there, and the hope is that the bulk can come later.

A beautiful case study of this investigation came against Michigan.

Thomas reads the action of the line and backs, scraping to the play side. He’s met with a massive hole and lead blocking fullback (#19). The strength of FSU’s defense is toward the middle of the field, as DE Josh Sweat (#9) sets a nice edge, and back side LB Ro’Derrick Hoskins is unblocked.

As such, Thomas maintains outside leverage on the fullback before getting low and delivering a shot with his inside shoulder. With nice power, he levers the FB up with his forearm and disengages, presenting to the outside of the block. The RB (#4) can either elect to cut back inside to the waiting Hoskins, or continue outside to the appropriately-placed Thomas. He chooses Thomas’ gap, and Thomas is able to get an arm around the back and help make the tackle.

Before we move on, check out the offense for me: 21 personnel, I-formation, FB offset to the weak side. Got it? Good.

Same play out of the same set–and accordingly, the same look for Thomas. He’s aligned wider than he was in the first clip, so there’s less of a scrape, and more of an immediate, downhill fill. But the blocking scheme and gap responsibilities don’t change.

However, this fill is less successful for Thomas–why? Because he’s not a big dude, and while he does well generating power here, the fullback gets nice and low, also arriving with heat. They essentially stalemate, but because Thomas isn’t able to knock that fullback back into the crease, the ball carrier can get skinny and pinball through traffic to pick up five yards.

Remember the original function of this exercise: to determine if Thomas has an answer to his limitations and obstacles. Also, remember the alignment and the play: 21 personnel, I-formation, FB offset to the weak side. HB Dive Weak.

Go ahead, watch it again. How can you not?

Yes, this is again an example of Thomas using his athleticism to slip a block–something I just predicted he may struggle to do at the pro level. But the recognition, processing, power, and athleticism displayed by Thomas through this three-play chess match is truly something to behold. He sees the first clip just before the half, and then the second and third back-to-back on Michigan’s opening possession of the 3rd quarter. And through these reps, he demonstrated not only a willingness to exchange power for power and fill among the trees, but also the instincts and physical skill necessary to thwart Michigan’s attempt to expose his lack of size.

And they never ran this play his way again.

Yes, Thomas will shoot gaps and forego integrity; he will neglect his hands in taking on blocks and get relocated; he will trust his athleticism to make plays that he simply cannot make. These are, again, the nuances commonly forgotten by the otherworldly athlete–and those edges are made all the rougher by his slew of missed games. But he can, however, boast of an inimitable marriage between physical talent and mental sharpness. As the 2017 season carries on, more and more teams and evaluators will take notice.

And you’ll tell them that you saw the curtain drawing back all along.

Benjamin Solak

Ben Solak has been a football fan and film junkie for all of his life, and has the pleasure of serving as a National Scout for NDT Scouting. He also covers the Philadelphia Eagles for Bleeding Green Nation and co-hosts the Locked On Eagles podcast. Ben takes many things far too seriously, including fishing, Captain America, grammar, and Game Of Thrones.

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