Rather athletic. [Left: 247Sports; Right: Bill Rapai/MGoBlog]
Four-star Detroit King cornerback Ambry Thomas, the #2 player in the state, committed to Michigan last night via video announcement.
An Army All-American and two-time state champion, Thomas chose the Wolverines over Michigan State in a recruitment that was very reminiscent of that of his former King teammate and current Michigan corner Lavert Hill. While the Spartans made a late push to try to convince Thomas he could be a program savior, Thomas chose a tougher path to the field and everything else that comes with being a student-athlete at Michigan:
"Grew up a Michigan fan," Thomas told 247Sports shortly after announcing his verbal. "I'm willing to accept Coach (Jim) Harbaugh's challenge and you can't go wrong with the life after football there."
Thomas is Michigan's 21st commit in the 2017 class and their second at cornerback, joining four-star Canadian prospect Benjamin St-Juste. Thomas also joins his cousin, Cass Tech safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell, whose commitment to Michigan played a big role in Thomas's decision. Michigan now has four of the top five in-state recruits in the class, and they're expected to land the fifth, five-star Cass Tech WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, who will take his official visit to Ann Arbor this weekend.
4*, #5 CB,
4*, #17 CB,
4*, 81, #22 CB,
4*, 93, #3 CB,
4*, #11 CB,
There's quite a split between the bullish Scout/247 rankings and the bearish Rivals/ESPN ones, and I've seen enough of Thomas in person and on film to confidently side with the former. I'd understand the Rivals/ESPN rankings if Thomas were being evaluated as a wide receiver, a position for which he's a bit undersized but still excelled playing at The Opening against the nation's top competition—and he's been quite a two-way threat for King over the last few years.
Thomas is a superior defensive prospect, however, and while 247's ranking may be a little lofty—he does need to fill out and improve his run support—I don't get how you can keep a player with his ability and versatility out of the top 100. If Thomas reaches his potential, he could be a lockdown cornerback who contributes in all three phases.
The sites are in general agreement on Thomas's size, listing him between 5'11" and 6'0" (Scout and 247 put him at 5'11.5") and 165-174 pounds. The consensus is Thomas is on the heavier end of that range; he'll still need to bulk up before he's an effective run defender at the college level.
There's a ton out there on Thomas, who first emerged as a promising two-way player as a sophomore at King. He was listed ahead of older Power 5 players like Demetric Vance among top performers at the 2015 Pylon 7-on-7 tournament by Rivals's Josh Helmholdt, and he was barely edged out by Lavert Hill as the best DB at that spring's RCS Cleveland camp:
Thomas showed some quick footwork during position drills and he was able to get in and out of his breaks with a strong burst. During one-on-one competition, he was at the top of his game. He was blanketed receiver after receiver. He was able to stick with the quicker guys and he was able to handle the physical play of the bigger guys. He had a few pass break-ups and made a very strong push for the defensive back MVP award.
He impressed at that summer's Friday Night Light's camp at Ohio State, where Tim Sullivan concluded that with more experience "his physical skills will allow him to be a special player."
Thomas excelled in his junior season, catching the eye of Scout's Allen Trieu in a major way in the season opener against Warren De La Salle:
King's four-star junior Ambry Thomas had the big play of the day, an electrifying touchdown catch where he made numerous players miss in the open field. He's gotten a little bigger himself and his length and blazing speed make him an elite prospect.
He was instrumental in King's state championship, playing both receiver and cornerback. This spring, he earned an invite to The Opening finals by proving he could hang with the best of the best at the Columbus regional, per 247's Steve Wiltfong:
247Sports Director of Scouting Barton Simmons’s favorite player was Detroit (Mich.) King cornerback Ambry Thomas, who not only was invited to The Opening but also received his invite to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The day started off for the 5-foot-11 ½, 174-pound Thomas who posted one of the fastest 40-yard dash marks of the day, a laser-timed 4.48. Thomas was ready to go during 1-on-1s checking the top receivers at the event and it carried over to 7-on-7. Thomas has big-time make-up speed and went back and forth with five-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Scout's Bill Greene, at the same event, called Thomas "wiry and combative, never giving an inch in coverage"
Before heading to the finals, Thomas participated in June's Sound Mind Sound Body camp at Wayne State, where the MGoBlog crew was present. I thought Thomas was the best college prospect in attendance:
Thomas was the most physically impressive player on the field. He's got solid height for a corner—perhaps a shade under six-foot even—with long arms, and he uses that length to play a physical brand of man coverage even in an unpadded setting. Even though he was bigger than most of the other corners, he had the smoothest backpedal and hip turn in drills—it wasn't hard to pick out the best athlete of the bunch even before one-on-ones began.
Thomas lost an early rep to [KJ] Hamler, then battled him to a relative draw in their next matchup; Thomas used his hands well to disrupt the route before Hamler broke free for a tough catch—one that probably doesn't get made in a game setting because the quarterback couldn't wait that long on one read. Thomas jammed another receiver so hard at the line of scrimmage that the QB didn't even bother with a throw, a rarity in that drill. He displayed great recovery speed and ball skills when a receiver got off the line—both are on full display in this video.
While cornerback is his future, Thomas also took a couple reps at receiver, torching the corner for an easy long completion on the first rep and high-pointing an underthrow on the second. He's got the potential to be as good as any corner from the state in recent years. Yes, that includes Jourdan Lewis—Thomas isn't quite as twitchy, but he's got better size. Like Hamler, he was itching to get back onto the field after each rep.
Steve Wiltfong agreed; while he had Hamler as the camp's best performer, he singled out Thomas as the best college prospect on the field:
Thomas is another with fantastic speed, moves very well laterally, a fluid, long athlete that plays with toughness and confidence.
Wiltfong suggested Thomas may be a five-star talent; of the four sites, 247 is closest to bestowing him that honor.
Thomas didn't plan to participate in Michigan's Bright Lights Big House camp in June, but his competitive spirit won out when he saw that top-100 AL WR Nico Collins was taking part, per 247's Isaiah Hole:
Collins also got to go up against Detroit (MI) Martin Luther King CB Ambry Thomas -- who was attending the camp as a spectator, but decided to lace up his cleats once he saw Collins there.
His competitiveness stood out all summer; he only wanted the top matchups at SMSB, took as many reps as he could, and clearly relished testing his ability against the very best receivers he could find.
At the finals of The Opening, Thomas made spectacular plays on both sides of the ball. The camp named him one of the six all-tournament defensive backs in a loaded field. Scout named him to their defense "Super Team" while their writeup focused on his offensive exploits:
Thomas was one of the more reliable targets of any team at the Opening, able to work the underneath routes with quickness before breaking out during deep shots with his top end speed. The 4.43 he clicked Friday was no hoax.
247 put him on their "Dream Team" as an all-purpose defender:
He's on here on the defensive side but Thomas made his mark as our best two-way threat. He was a lock-down guy at cornerback but on a [team] hampered by injuries on offense, he was one of the day's top deep threat at wide receiver too.
Notably, Thomas was catching those passes from Dylan McCaffrey, Michigan's 2017 QB commit.
After that performance, ESPN listed him first among prospects who improved their stock over the summer:
Thomas tore up The Opening, especially in 7-on-7 play. The Detroit prospect is well-known around the Midwest and is an ESPN 300 prospect, but he wasn't talked about as much nationally as other recruits. Normally a defensive back, Thomas played both offense and defense at The Opening and he scored multiple touchdowns for his team. He showed off his speed and athleticism that most around the state of Michigan knew he had.
Then they didn't move him into the top 200, because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. 247, in stark contrast, shot Thomas up from #113 to #32 in their post-Opening re-rank, and he's remained in that range ever since.
The Wolverine's Brandon Brown caught Thomas in a preseason scrimmage setting, where his reputation preceded him:
Thomas was not thrown at virtually all day. His length, speed, and quickness made it very tough for any receivers to get separation and quarterbacks did not want to test the four-star cover man even in a scrimmage.
Even though he's slight at 165 pounds, Thomas showed an ability and an eagerness to come up and help against the run. He'll never be a big-time hitter or a physical presence, but he will keep contain and tackle in space when he needs to.
Thomas was featured twice in Future Blue Originals posts on this here site this season, first after his Prep Kickoff Classic game against Southfield A&T. Adam's takeaway from that game:
Thomas has been lauded for his camp performances over the summer, and it seems that the skill he showed on that circuit is translating well to the field. He’s excellent in press man and off coverage, and as a receiver he ran great routes; he’s a technician. He has the football IQ, speed, and athleticism you’d want in a CB who, should he commit to Michigan, will likely spend his college career primarily as a press man corner. As for his downside, it seems to be nothing that a college strength and conditioning program can’t fix.
His subsequent performance against Cass Tech had Adam convinced he could be a two-way player in college:
All told, he’s incredibly athletic and seems to be a more legitimate two-way threat than I thought he was after our first viewing. Thomas is talented enough as a receiver to at least merit experimenting with him on offense if he eventually chooses Michigan.
I wholeheartedly agree with Sam Webb's assessment from after Thomas's commitment last night:
To say Thomas has the highest ceiling, coming out of high school, of that whole group [of Detroit defensive backs], is not a stretch.
"I’ve watched a number of big time defensive back prospects come out of Detroit over the past 15 years, and Ambry Thomas has the talent and heart to be the best of them all," said The Michigan Insider's Sam Webb. "I think he is a taller, faster version of Jourdan Lewis. He is an excellent bump and run defender. He has great feet, loose hips, recovery speed, and tremendous ball skills. Lewis was better technically at the same stage of development, but Thomas is more physical. Jourdan grew into being physical and is now one of the best tackling corners in the country.
"I think Ambry can make the same leap with his technique. Once he does that I think you’ll see him start impacting the game on offense. He told me his wants to immerse himself in the defense for a season or two before trying his hand at receiver. When he is ready Michigan will definitely give the opportunity because he has shown himself to be a big play threat every time he touches the ball.
Thomas should be able to make an early impact at cornerback and he's got the potential to do a whole lot more down the road. Despite his lofty composite ranking, I think he's a little underrated; he's in the top handful of prospects I've seen in the state in the last six years.
Thomas holds notable offers from Arkansas, Arizona State, Auburn, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Louisville, LSU, Miami (YTM), Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Oregon, Penn State, Pitt, South Carolina, Tennessee, UCLA, USC, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, among several others.
You're probably well-acquainted with Detroit Martin Luther King, which has developed quite a rivalry with Cass Tech in the PSL. The Crusaders repeated as Division 2 state champions this season, albeit in less dramatic fashion than last year. Notable recent King recruits include four-star 2016 CB Lavert Hill (Michigan), four-star 2016 WR/CB Donnie Corley (MSU), three-star 2016 RB Martell Pettaway (West Virginia), four-star 2015 OL Kyonta Stallworth (MSU), three-star 2015 OLB Tyriq Thompson (MSU), four-star 2012 RB Dennis Norfleet (Michigan), four-star 2008 DE Nick Perry (USC), and four-star 2002 DT Larry Harrison (Michigan).
As you can see, MSU has done quite well recruiting King in recent years, in no small part because two prominent recruiting staffers—Curtis Blackwell and Butler Benton—are MLK grads. Michigan has grabbed a lot of momentum back by winning head-to-head battles for Lavert Hill and now Thomas, though losing out to State for Donnie Corley is going to sting for a couple years.
None that were easily googleable.
FAKE 40 TIME
Thomas ran one of the ten fastest 40s at The Opening finals, posting an electronically timed 4.43, which gets zero FAKEs out of five. He also posted one of the better shuttle times (3.90), a measure of agility that is of particular importance for a cornerback, and a solid 35.9-inch vertical leap.
Junior highlights and single-game reels can be found on his Hudl page.
PREDICTION BASED ON FLIMSY EVIDENCE
Thomas will get the opportunity to see the field at cornerback immediately upon his arrival, especially if Jeremy Clark isn't granted a sixth year of eligibility. He'll have the chance to prepare both physically and mentally by enrolling early. At the very least, I expect him to get his feet wet like Lavert Hill did this year, and he's more college-ready than Hill was coming out of high school. With Hill, Thomas, St-Juste, and David Long, Michigan has some very exciting young prospects at cornerback. The battle for playing time between them will be fun to watch.
As Sam mentioned in his evaluation, Thomas should ease his way into an expanded role as a potential triple-threat: cornerback, wide receiver, and return man. While it may be hard to crack the receiver rotation with the talent Michigan is bringing in there, Thomas is skilled and athletic enough to earn snaps on offense anyway.
UPSHOT FOR THE REST OF THE CLASS
Michigan sits at 21 commits in a class that is projected to get up to 32 or so. They'd like to take one more cornerback. Darnay Holmes, who cancelled a planned official for this weekend, looks likely to end up at UCLA, so Michigan will probably move on to other options like Notre Dame commit Elijah Hicks. Other positions of need include wide receiver, a few more offensive linemen, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker. Here's the class as it currently stands:
MI CB Ambry Thomas, the #2 player in the state, just announced his commitment to Michigan:
Thomas is the #3 CB and #31 overall player in the country to 247; he's 5th and 58th, respectively, on Scout. The other two services have him around 200th. Sam Webb on Thomas:
"I think he is a taller, faster version of Jourdan Lewis. He is an excellent bump and run defender. He has great feet, loose hips, recovery speed, and tremendous ball skills. Lewis was better technically at the same stage of development, but Thomas is more physical."
Michigan now has commits from 5 of the top 8 players in the state and hopes to add Donovan Peoples-Jones and Deron Irving-Bey in the near future.
A full post is coming tomorrow.
A few years ago it was de rigueur on this site to talk about how college rules allowed NCAA teams to use a different style of punting, and that this style (called spread or shield) of punting was demonstrably superior to NFL-style (tornado). Michigan has swung between them in recent years. Carr tested out something like shield punting in 2003 then scrapped it when it cost him a game against Iowa. Rodriguez took us to spread punting along with spread offense, and Hoke returned the program to pro-style as was his wont.
In 2015 Harbaugh brought in special teams guru John Baxter and the spread was once again installed, presumably for good. Then Baxter left, and this year Michigan used both. At first we wondered if this was, like under Hoke, some relic of a coaching staff that strove to be pro-like in everything. But as the punt blocks, and near punt blocks, and running-intos that by all rights should have been punt blocks piled up, a new thought emerged: maybe Michigan thinks they’ve solved the spread punt.
Shield punting refresher
The splits are huge: two yards between the snapper and the guards, and two more yards until the next guy. You don’t care who comes up the A gaps—the only thing the guys on the line of scrimmage have to do is redirect the man lined up outside of them then get downfield (you don’t want your snapper involved in blocking).
The three guys standing about 7 yards back are the “shield”. You want big burly dudes for your shield, and you tell them the Grand Canyon is just behind their heels so they’d better not give an inch. By not giving an inch, they create an eye in the middle of the storm for the punter to safely get the punt off.
Everyone else just has to force the attackers to widen to the point where they can’t get back inside in time to affect the punt. That’s why the guards split so far apart: anyone going outside of them should presumably be too far outside to affect the punt. Anyone coming up the middle will get stuck behind an immovable wall of beef.
In the linked video, Daniel mentions the way to attack it is put four guys into those big “A” gaps, because that could overwhelm the shield. The way the shield would deal with this is block out man-to-man, and let the guys in the A gaps try to get around the shield. As long as your three-man shield can still stop four A-gap rushers, you’ve got a sound punt blocking strategy with two to four more guys releasing downfield than you would in an NFL-style punt.
[After the JUMP we get around the shield]
Thursday, December 1, 2016
#6 Penn State 6, #20 Michigan 1
PSU 1 UM 0 EV 07:56 Assists: Richard & Smirnov
Nagelvoort’s standing to lock the post, which is perfectly acceptable and even favorable positioning-wise considering that open PSU skater drifting through the slot. Michigan loses a battle in the corner, and PSU now has possession of the puck near the net with a dangerous passing option open.
Richard decides that he’ll drive the net himself, which makes little sense to me but proves effective in stirring up a scrum in front of the net. Nagelvoort butterflies and stops the initial shot, but he gives up a rebound.
Defensively, Kile comes screaming in and goes right for Richard. Warren (whom the arrow is to the left of in the screen cap below) is also reaching ahead, apparently in an effort to knock the puck away. He soon realizes that he needs to cover the skater to his right.
Nagelvoort’s body is turned away from the middle of the crease because of the way in which he attacked the initial shot. He has to rotate around to get square to the shooters to his left. With so many guys in the crease unmoved, the task in front of him is monumental. The key to the goal is the skater underneath the arrow in the screen cap below.
I don’t understand why Shuart lets him skate into the slot unimpeded. It’s not like this is a skater who popped up out of nowhere; he’s been shadowing him since they were near the boards.
Sturtz gets to the loose puck an flips it up. The puck ends taking a strange path in, going up and rolling over Nagelvoort. Shuart then gives Sturtz a shot as guys jostle after the puck’s in, which…I don’t know. I don’t understand the lack of urgency and I don’t understand why he seemed to be so observant of what was going on behind and around the net but didn’t cover the skater right in front of him.
[Hit THE JUMP to reset expectations]
Now that football has ceased, a glance at some ongoing sports you may not have paid much attention to yet.
They're real bad
photo not meant to reflect poorly on Jack Lafontaine [James Coller]
Let us cut to the chase. This is the worst Michigan hockey team since Red Berenson rescued the program from its mid-80s doldrums. The three Michigan teams that missed the tourney prior to last year were at least within shouting distance of a bid. Flip a game or two and those guys squeeze into the tournament.
This year's team is 6-7-1 and currently 31st in RPI, in the bottom half nationally. Compounding matters: they're probably the luckiest team in the country. After getting bombed by Penn State their Corsi* is 59th out of 60 teams, ahead of only Alaska-Anchorage. They've survived because their goalies have a collective .927 save percentage, and that has nothing to do with the quality of shots they've faced. While having a good save percentage is, you know, good, SV% is a notoriously fickle stat requiring something more than a full NHL season to produce anything even sort of predictive. Michigan's ranking there could be skill; it could be luck. If it's the latter, Katie bar the door.
The eye test is little better. They were just blown off the ice by Penn State 6-1 and 5-1; when they played LSSU it looked like a bad WCHA team playing itself. Jake Slaker, a 20-year old former St. Lawrence recruit, went from nowhere to the top line. He's scoring some; he's also –9.
Without a turnaround for the ages the only thing keeping this team from the cellar of the Big Ten is Michigan State.
*[Your percent of all shot attempts in a game. Broadly more predictive than actual goals.]
Slaker, a late add, went from St. Lawrence commit to M's top line [Coller]
Last year's team was fool's gold that forestalled Red Berenson's perpetually impending retirement yet again. They had an insane amount of talent. Tyler Motte, Kyle Connor, and Zach Werenski went directly to the NHL, with JT Compher not far behind. Those four guys drove so much of Michigan's play, and they also lost two productive scoring line wingers in Justin Selman and Boo Nieves.
A decent but not great incoming recruiting class could not replace that production. The academic suspension of promising freshman Cooper Marody (10-14-24 a year ago) did not help. This team has two guys—Alex Kile and Will Lockwood—who look like top six forwards on a good Michigan team.
The defense is hypothetically deep and good, but in practice teams are piling up excellent scoring chances because Michigan can't exit their own zone, can't enter the opponent zone, and are giving up the constant parade of odd-man rushes that's been characteristic of the program over the past few years.
All of this traces back to the head coach. Every player with an opportunity to go pro does so as quickly as possible, even guys like Andrew Copp who are total shocks. Marody's suspension is just about unprecedented in hockey. For years Red has tolerated guys like Tristin Llewellyn and Michael Downing who take awful penalties and constantly pinch at the wrong time.
Even last year's massive pile of talent was outshot 49-27 in a 5-2 loss to North Dakota in the second round of the tournament. Michigan had an NHL first line and the most prolific rookie defenseman in the NHL this year and still got blown off the ice by a program it used to look at as a peer. What does this program look like with good, but not transcendent talent?
Is there any hope?
Not realistically. This isn't a one year issue, but a steady decline over the last half decade that last year's talent managed to defy. This team still has more talent (9 draft picks!) than the majority of teams they'll play in the Big Ten, but one of the teams they have more on-paper talent than just blew them off the ice. One of the others, Ohio State, is sixth in RPI.
Michigan teams have picked themselves off the mat at midseason before and gone on runs to make or narrowly miss the tourney; the difference between those teams and this one is the distance they'd have to go to go from losing games to winning them.
Suck it up and wait it out, I guess. I have to imagine that a fourth missed tournament in five years would be the point at which Red Berenson walks away to prevent damaging his legacy even further. Michigan would have good options afterwards, but the point to talk about that is later.
Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Wilton Speight
Wilton, what are your thoughts on Florida State and playing them?
“Yeah, pretty cool. I saw that the last team, the last Michigan team, to go to the Orange Bowl was Tom Brady’s team that went to overtime with Alabama, so that was a cool little piece of history that I saw. Really athletic team in Florida State. Lot of studs on that team and real well coached by Coach Fisher, so I’m excited to hit the film with Coach Fisch and figure out the gameplan for what we’re going to do.”
What was the rollercoaster of emotions today? Did you wake up feeling you still had a chance to get into the playoff and when you found out, how did you guys cope with that, deal with that, move forward from that?
WS: “I think we all woke up hoping something might still happen. We knew Clemson or Washington had to lose for us to really have a solid chance, but it’s not done by computer; it’s done by people with brains and emotions and thoughts, so we thought there was still a chance. But we put ourselves in this position to leave it up to other people. Four points away from sitting here up in front of you guys undefeated. It’s tough, but at the same time we’ve got a lot to prove. We can really make a statement in Miami.”
RG: “Yeah, I agree with Wilton. I think that this game in Miami is going to be a statement game. We want to leave this program on top and [with] a step in the right direction. Chris and I are leaving, but Wilton has two more years here to lead this team. So yeah, we want to make it a statement game. We want to show that we’re in the top four teams in college football.”
CW: “I agree.”
Wilton, how’s the shoulder, collarbone, whatever’s going on? How healthy were you last Saturday?
“I was healthy enough to play, to be able to try and make as many plays as I could for the team. This week off has helped. We didn’t practice this past week; coaches were out recruiting. We’ll start back up on Tuesday. Not sure the extent of how hard we’ll go this first week, but the week off definitely helped. I’m getting healthier every day.”
[After THE JUMP: “I think we’re gonna be hungry, we’re gonna be angry, and we’re gonna want to take it out on a team, and Florida State’s the next team up.”]