Matthew Thomas is nearly out of chances.
The one time can’t-miss prospect has missed big time since arriving at Florida State in 2013, playing in 12 games in three years because of injuries and, more troubling, suspensions.
Now Thomas, who will be a senior in the fall, will have one more chance to show the potential he had as the top-ranked outside linebacker prospect in the country coming out of Miami’s Booker T. Washington High School.
“He can help us,” defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. “He can help this team, not just the defense. … A lot.”
Thomas was billed as one of those rare talents with size (he’s 6-foot-3, 224 pounds) strength, speed and quickness. He was one of the most sought-after players in the country following his senior season. Everybody believed he would make an immediate impact and blossom into a once-in-a-generation type of player.
But to do that you have to get on the field.
Thomas appeared in four games as a freshman before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. He made four tackles, two for losses.
Believing he was ready to take that nest step in 2014, Thomas was suspiciously absent from practice in August before it was revealed he had been suspended for breaking unspecified NCAA rules. That suspension was lifted after six games and Thomas played the final eight games, starting three, including the Rose Bowl against Oregon. He had 26 tackles for the season.
Expected to contribute in 2015 (especially at a position decimated by injuries and transfers), Thomas was declared ineligible for the season in August and not allowed to practice.
“It was very tough on him, frustrating at times,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He understood it. It’s just part of it, part of what he had to do. It made him appreciate how much he really loves the game. I’m anxious to see how he comes out this spring.”
Thomas kept his distance from the team until offseason conditioning drills started in January. Now, Walker and Fisher are optimistic, but any excitement about Thomas must be tempered. Until he actually walks on the field for another game, how can he be counted upon?
“Me and him talk more than normal now,” Walker said. “He opened up to me. He’s smiling. He’s serious.”
Said Fisher, “he’s having a great offseason.”
Nobody could mean more to this defense than Thomas if he comes close to reaching expectations. He plays the only position on the team that was decimated by graduation with both of last year’s starters (Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup) departing. And with rising junior Ro’Derrick Hoskins breaking out in 2015, a committed Thomas could pair with Hoskins, which would further strengthen the defense.
Thomas was working with the first team defense the first day of spring practice.
“Getting Matthew Thomas back in there will be huge,” Fisher said.
Fisher said this week he is not worried about the position even though Hoskins is the only returning linebacker to have taken meaningful snaps.
Hoskins becomes the leader after making six starts last season, most in place of an ailing Smith, and contributing 52 tackles, 6.5 for losses.
Because the Seminoles primarily play two linebackers and five defensive backs, the lack of depth is not as much of a concern. Still, FSU is counting on unknowns like sophomores Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane and Delvin Purifoy, junior Tyrell Lyons (recovering from ACL surgery) and an impressive crop of newcomers.
“Everybody’s worried about linebacker. I’m not,” Fisher said. “I like our linebacker crew.”
A big reason for that is the emergence of newcomer Josh Brown, the lone linebacker among the February signees to enroll early and take part in offseason conditioning drills and spring practice.
Fisher praised Brown, who is from Charlotte, N.C. more than any other freshman this week, saying he looks like he’s been around the program for three years.
“This guy stood out to us as far as drills,” Fisher said. “Now he’s got to take it to the field.”