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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: THE BOWL GAMES : Huskers’ Thomas Star Talker, Too : Nebraska’s Leading Character Also Is Leader of the Defense

Times Staff Writer

If you can somehow overlook Broderick Thomas’ tendency to deliver more entertaining monologues than anyone from Nebraska since Johnny Carson, you might find the Cornhuskers’ senior All-American linebacker a little on the shy side.

Kind of like his uncle, Mike Singletary, the Chicago Bears’ all-pro linebacker and man of few words.

“If you got to know him,” said Tony Samuel, the Nebraska linebacker coach who has had Thomas for the last 3 seasons, “you’d find that he’s a little reserved. Really.”

But for those who know Thomas only when he opens his mouth in public, he comes across as just slightly less outrageous than the last notable All-American linebacker from the Big Eight to show up here for the Orange Bowl--Oklahoma’s Brian Bosworth, albeit without the earring and the Mohawk ‘do.

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Miami linebacker Randy Shannon, in the days before the Hurricanes’ Orange Bowl date with the Cornhuskers on Monday night, even went so far as to imply that Thomas’ reputation, like Bosworth’s, was as much a product of marketing an image as making tackles.

“He’s nothing more than an average linebacker,” Shannon said.

Either Shannon was picking a fight, or he is hard to impress. Thomas comes in a swift, powerful package that checks in at 6-3 and 250 pounds. Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne has called Thomas “the finest outside linebacker we’ve ever had” in his 27 seasons at the university, 16 as head coach.

“He’s an impact player,” Samuel said. “He’s got the speed of a lot of running backs and the size of a lot of linemen.”

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From his outside linebacking position, Thomas led Nebraska in 10 defensive categories, including tackles (98), sacks (10) and fumbles caused (3). His best game may have come in Nebraska’s worst one, a 41-28 loss to UCLA in Pasadena. Nebraska rates its defensive players on “factors,” which include tackles, assists, passes broken up or hurried. Samuel said Thomas graded about 17 or 18, which is extraordinary.

Maybe the average Nebraska player would have overlooked Shannon’s taunt. Not Thomas.

He had resisted the temptation to fill up notebooks all week here, but he couldn’t let Shannon’s slight pass, although at first he tried.

“I don’t have a comment,” Thomas said, warming to the task.

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“If what the guy (Shannon) says is true, I’m just an average first-team All-American, an average all-Big Eight selection, an average Butkus Award finalist, an average top 5 NFL draft pick.

“If that’s what it means to be average, then I don’t mind at all.”

And if that’s what it means to be reserved, there are a few dictionaries in need of revision.

In Oklahoma, Thomas was considered about as subtle as a summer drought. They called him The Mouth That Roared, especially after he failed to back up his widely publicized boast that Nebraska could not possibly lose to Oklahoma last season in Lincoln, in “our House,” as he called Memorial Stadium. Oklahoma won, 17-7, running Thomas’ record against OU to 0-3 in his first 3 seasons.

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That may have muzzled Thomas temporarily. But then Nebraska finally beat Oklahoma, 7-3, in Norman last Nov. 19, to win the Big Eight title and a berth in the Orange Bowl. In that game, Thomas made 8 tackles and helped to hold the country’s fourth-ranked rushing offense (367.9 yards a game going in) to 98 yards rushing and a total of 8 first downs.

Thomas showed up at the postgame press conference wearing a large clock around his neck, like Flavor Flav in his favorite rap group, Public Enemy.

Why a clock?

“It’s time for a new Big Eight champion,” he crowed. “It’s time for somebody new in Miami.

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“We get the last laugh, and that’s what’s important. We’re going out in class.

“They lose their house, and we took the keys.”

Even at 11-1, the No. 6 Cornhuskers have no chance at a national championship, even with a win Monday over No. 2 Miami. But, Thomas contended, West Virginia has no business playing for a national title, either.

In Atlanta for a luncheon honoring the All-American team three weeks ago, Thomas predicted that West Virginia would lose by “40-some points” to Notre Dame in Monday’s Fiesta Bowl.

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“West Virginia hasn’t played anybody,” he said. " . . . What have they played, one team (Syracuse) in the top 20? How can a team like that win the national championship?”

Ask Samuel about Thomas’ quote production, and he contends the player is partially the victim of headline-mongers in the media.

“Some of that wasn’t always him,” Samuel said. “He was more or less trapped. Sooner or later, (the media) knew they could get him going and he’d pop off, or whatever you want to call it.

“I’m sure he’s said a few things he’d like to take back. I think last year it hurt him, especially after the Oklahoma game. I think he felt betrayed by the press at one point.”

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There are those who say, however, that Thomas is the first legitimate character the Cornhuskers have had in years, something not everybody in Lincoln is comfortable with. The suspicion is that Osborne advised Thomas before this season to tone it down.

If anything, Samuel said, Thomas has evolved from the freshman who asked to be known as the Sandman (because he put ballcarriers to sleep) into the unquestioned leader of the Cornhusker defense.

“He’s a great competitor,” Samuel said of Thomas, who finished second to Alabama’s Derrick Thomas (no relation) in the voting for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker.

“He does not like to lose. He shows up for the big games. He’s done that for the last 3 years.”

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Thomas wants no part of the Boz comparison. He’d rather leave people with the message from a rap song by Public Enemy, one he spotted on a jacket worn by boxer Mike Tyson. He liked it so much, he went out and bought a jacket like it.

The message?

“Don’t Believe the Hype.”


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