Ohio State's Michael Thomas backs up sharp play with hard work

Ohio State's Michael Thomas backs up sharp play with hard work
Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas runs after making a catch during the Buckeyes' blowout victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6. (Sam Riche / Tribune News Service)

Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas put off exploring Bourbon Street and this city's other amusements.

He's been too busy studying tape and preparing for the Sugar Bowl.

"I can go on vacation after I finish my job," he said Tuesday.

Thomas spoke from behind a table reserved specifically for him at media day at the Superdome. It was situated on the goal line.


Thomas would like to cross it Thursday, ball in hand after scoring a touchdown or two when Ohio State plays top-seeded Alabama in a semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

"You want to just show what you can do," he said, "because everyone is going to be watching."

Alabama's defense cannot afford to lose track of Thomas, who played at Woodland Hills Taft High and has matured into one of the Buckeyes' top offensive threats.

The 6-foot-3, 203-pound Thomas is the nephew of Keyshawn Johnson, a former USC and NFL star. He wears No. 3, as Johnson did, and shares some of the same legendary confidence.

Thomas' Twitter handle? @cantguardMike

"I feel like it's pretty legit," he said.

After studying tape of Thomas and the rest of Ohio State's receiver corps, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart did not disagree.

The sure-handed Thomas used his size, speed and leaping ability for a team-best 43 receptions, eight for touchdowns. "He's a matchup problem," Smart said.

Thomas' journey to this opportunity included snubs from USC and UCLA, a stop at a military prep school, an unexpected but productive redshirt season in 2013, and a breakout performance this season.

The third-year sophomore's evolution, on and off the field, has been "a complete 180," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.

Thomas' road to Columbus, Ohio, started at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High. He played football as a freshman, but as a sophomore was home-schooled and did not participate in high school sports.

He enrolled at Taft for his junior year.

"He was a string bean," former Taft coach Matt Kerstetter recalled.

Thomas worked to put muscle on his then-6-2 frame and to understand Taft's West Coast offense. He played as a reserve — "He used it as motivation, he turned that into fuel," Kerstetter said — then made a major leap in the spring and summer leading into his senior season.

Thomas played for a seven-on-seven team organized by Johnson that which featured prospects such as receivers Devin Lucien and Jordan Payton, now at UCLA. He also worked out on his own.

"He was relentless," Johnson said.

Thomas returned for his senior season at Taft in 2010 and combined with quarterback Mike Bercovici to form one of the Southland's top passing combinations. He caught 86 passes, 21 for touchdowns.

Neither USC nor UCLA offered scholarships.

"It was kind of frustrating," he said. "But I knew if I ever got a chance I was going to make a statement."

Oregon State, Syracuse and Oklahoma State offered scholarships, but Thomas opted to attend Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, a prep school that has served as a springboard to major college football.

He roomed for a semester with Cardale Jones, who will start at quarterback for the Buckeyes against Alabama. Both enrolled at Ohio State for the spring term in 2012.

Thomas played in 11 games but caught only three passes as a freshman. He was still struggling to consistently execute the offense and fulfill academic commitments when, one game into the 2013 season, Coach Urban Meyer, Herman and receivers coach Zach Smith decided to redshirt Thomas.

"I didn't run from it," Thomas said, adding, "I just took a business approach to it."

Teammates noticed.

"All the results from this season are just a testament to how hard he worked," senior receiver Evan Spencer said.

Thomas caught his first touchdown pass in the opener against Navy. He scored on a long catch-and-run play in a loss to Virginia Tech, made a spectacular leaping catch in the back of the end zone against Maryland and turned a slant pass into an electrifying 79-yard touchdown against Michigan State.

"I've been able to show a lot of it," he said of his talent, "but not everything I have to offer."

He gets another chance Thursday after spending the week preparing.

Smith, his position coach, will not forget the sight of Thomas studying tape the night the Buckeyes arrived. Players had a generous curfew but Thomas stayed at the hotel and worked.

"When he left, I took a moment and kind of choked up," Smith said. "I'm like, 'Wow.' I'm just really proud of how far he's come and who he is today.

"And he hasn't even reached the ceiling yet."