There’s no need to take a vote on identifying the most improved football player in Southern California.
It’s receiver Mike Thomas of Woodland Hills Taft by a landslide.
Last season, he didn’t have a single reception. This season, he has caught 76 passes for 1,392 yards and 15 touchdowns. He ranks No. 1 in the state in receiving yardage.
“Every day, I try to get better,” Thomas said.
What explains the turnaround?
“The reason was quite simple — he had been a late bloomer,” Coach Matt Kerstetter said. “Last year, when he came into the program, he had to learn the system. He hadn’t grown into his body yet. He needed to get a little stronger, faster. All that has come in the last six months. He’s really worked his butt off.”
With big arms, big hands and big expectations, Thomas is finally getting to show the skills he always envisioned he’d have..
“I’m getting close to my dreams coming true,” he said.
As a freshman, he stood 5 foot 7 and weighed 115 pounds. As a 17-year-old senior, he’s 6-3, 185 pounds.
He attended Westlake Village Oaks Christian as a freshman, was home-schooled as a sophomore, then enrolled at Taft last season but rarely played. He never was comfortable picking up the offense, but he also had trouble getting open and wasn’t particularly fast.
Then came a transformation. The slow, awkward, hesitant teenager has been replaced by a quick, confident, determined one whose fingers grasp a football as if they were the tentacles of a giant squid.
His father, Mike Sr., spent hours on his computer researching exercises and techniques that would help his son improve his muscle strength and speed.
Whatever Thomas has done, it’s working. He’s faster and more agile now than in August. He seems to have grown into his body and adjusted to his shoe size going from 91/2 to 13.
His uncle is Keyshawn Johnson, the former Dorsey High, USC and NFL standout who isn’t shy about telling college coaches that his nephew can help them.
“If you’re smart and looking for a wide receiver who will catch the football and move the chains, he’s the guy,” Johnson said. “I see guys like this all the time who fly under the radar. He’s a guy who can play. This is the guy who will help you keep your job. He’s not a finished product. He’s only going to get better.”
Oregon State has offered Thomas a scholarship, and other schools could join the Beavers depending on how Thomas performs in the City Section Division I playoffs that begin Friday night. Taft is hosting Los Angeles West Adams in a first-round game.
Helping Thomas this season has been the exceptional play at quarterback of Michael Bercovici, who has mastered Kerstetter’s no-huddle, shotgun offense and passed for 2,959 yards and 30 touchdowns.
But make no mistake about it, Thomas is a receiver who has gone from bottom of the list to near the top.
“I think he will only continue to get better as he gets thicker, fills out and continues to work on his speed,” Kerstetter said.
One win by Taft in the playoffs will probably set up a quarterfinal matchup with No. 4-seeded Los Angeles Dorsey, a team that beat Taft on Sept. 9, 37-24. That was Thomas’ first varsity start. Thomas and the Toreadors want a second chance against the Dons, and wait until they see the progress he has made.