|Detroit, MI – 6'0", 170|
|Scout||4*, #56 overall
|Rivals||4*, #146 overall
#15 CB, #2 MI
|ESPN||4*, #186 overall
#17 CB, #3 MI
|24/7||4*, #62 overall
#8 CB, #2 MI
|Other Suitors||PSU, MSU, ND, USC, OSU, UF, MIA|
|YMRMFSPA||Jourdan Lewis, but fast!|
|Previously On MGoBlog||Hello post from Ace. Another guy who featured in three different Future Blue posts.|
|Notes||Twitter. Detroit King (Lavert Hill, Shazor, Norfleet, Larry Harrison).|
Of all the nut shots Michigan State football has taken over the last year, losing one-time lock Ambry Thomas to Michigan has to rank... well, somewhere in the top 20. Probably. In this fashion, Thomas is a bellwether in the same way Lamarr Woodley was back in the day. Woodley, another guy presumed to be an MSU lock at the beginning of his recruitment, was driven away by Bobby Williams-supervised chaos in East Lansing. At Michigan he was an All-American and one of the driving forces behind Michigan's outstanding 2006 defense; Williams successor John L Smith bungled his way through a number of losing seasons before Mark Dantonio entered. Hopefully Thomas portends a similar period.
When Thomas is not acting as a symbol for a shift in in-state fortunes, he plays cornerback very well. Two sites had him a solidly top-100 player and top-ten corner; two others were slightly more skeptical. Both takes are reasonable. On the one hand, Thomas was notably skinny when fans first laid eyes on him at the spring game. On the other, he is nearly six feet tall with long arms and consistently ran sub-4.5 40s at camps. (If you don't believe the stopwatch, Thomas put down the #10 time at the Opening (4.43).)
Forgive the Fred Jacksonism approaching, but Thomas has the potential to be Jourdan Lewis except fast and tall. Seriously! People keep comparing Thomas to Lewis. It's inevitable, and Thomas frequently gets the nod. 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.
Thomas has a better physical skill set than Lewis at the same age. He is bigger and faster. Lewis has elite instincts, ball skills and technique. I think Thomas, having seen him play offense, has comparable ball skills. At the same age, he does not yet have Lewis' technique, but that can come in time once he gets to college.
Ace caught him at SMSB, and keep in mind that at this point in his recruitment he was anything but a Michigan lock:
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. … 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.
And, uh, Ambry Thomas:
“We want to be possibly better than Jourdan Lewis one day,” Thomas said. “He’s a great football player.”
So there you go. I will pass on any Fred Jackson accusations to those fellows.
All of that is amazing, but there has to be a catch for a guy who isn't a top 50 prospect. That catch: he's not as far along physically as five-stars tend to be. Scout says he "needs to get physically bigger and stronger, but has all of the other tools," and ESPN mentioned it a few times in their writeup:
Tall, high-cut athlete on the leaner side. … Needs to fill out … lack of strength still shows when getting over blocks and running through as a tackler. Not yet a physical edge setter but the frame is there to develop into a competent college run defender.
The extent to which this is a concern varies by article and site. Adam thought it was worthy of at least some concern when he took on 2018 three-star Brandon Gray:
…right now he leaks yards when forced to hit in the open field. … tackling is Thomas’s one area where improvement is needed. To be clear, that’s solely from the perspective of strength. You can see from the film that there was no issue with his desire to help in run support or the angles he took.
King's coach downplayed it when Thomas committed in December:
"I don’t think it’s a concern," Spencer said. "…He’s actually about 174 right now even though he doesn’t look like it. He’ll be 185 to 190 by the time he’s ready to play. … He was benching 225 about five or six times even before his senior season started. Lavert has a different build and was throwing up 315, he was just stronger, but Ambry will be fine there too."
Thomas told Scout that he was 171 on Signing Day and that the coaches told him neither 2016 corner exceeded 177 pounds. That sounds like a small gap; your author remains somewhat skeptical of his ability to play immediately after watching him this spring. One of the spring wrap-up posts noted that one of Kareem Walker's touchdown runs featured Thomas getting run over. If he's behind where Lavert Hill was a year ago chances are he's going to need a year or two to hit that mark. Five-stars are more ready to go than that.
As reasons to downgrade a prospect go, that's a good one. "Is skinny" is almost literally the only knock you can find in his scouting reports. ESPN again:
Excels in press-man with his size and length. Does a good job staying between the ball and receiver and forcing QB's to make difficult throws. Shows a bit of tightness through his hips turning to run vertically but will match strides with faster receivers and recover from a trail. Does a great job defending the 50/50 ball and will go up and attack with a competitive demeanor. … Thomas has very good range, ball skills and athleticism … has some critical skills you cannot coach at corner.
…the quick-twitch ability … excellent recovery speed … good reactionary skills when the ball is in the air and the athleticism to position himself for a pass break up without drawing a pass interference. Above average instincts. Very quick to plant and drive downhill on routes.
Plays with smooth hips to mirror the receiver in space. Very light on his feet. He can really flip his hips and accelerate against vertical routes.
Scout called him a "complete cover man" as they named him one of the top defensive prospects at the Opening; at the Army game they said "his length and speed makes him a tough defender for receivers to separate from" as they named him one of the top performers on the East team. He was going head to head with Donovan Peoples-Jones, so that says something about something. 247's ND site praised him because he is "long, athletic, as physical as anyone in the nation"; 247 noted his "fantastic speed," ability to move laterally, and described him as a "fluid, long athlete who plays with toughness and confidence." Complaints are few and far between.
Thomas flashed potential on the other side of the ball at camps and in high school. This was most prominent at the Opening, when he filled in on offense for his team with explosive results:
…the four-star standout caught four touchdowns of 40+ yards on simple go routes, he simply just out ran his opponent. It was one of the better performances you’ll ever see in a camp setting.
That was no fluke. His 37 catches for 902 yards as a senior would be a good season for a full-time wideout. Adam caught his 6-catch, 156-yard game against Jaylen Kelly-Powell and came away thinking that he had a legit shot to be a slot in college:
…is five yards into his route before most other receivers can get off the line. … his ability to adjust to the ball in the air, run precise routes, and good old-fashioned speed warrant a look in the slot.
Despite that, with Michigan flush at WR I wouldn't expect too much two-way action from Thomas. There's a fair amount of chatter about it now that Josh Helmholdt punctured shortly after his commitment:
" He’s going to maximize who he is at the next level on defense. He doesn’t have a great frame for the slot at the college level. His speed, athleticism, and agility is not necessarily unique for the wide receiver position but at cornerback he has more elite traits. … He is physically gifted with speed and fluidity. He has very good instincts at cornerback like Lewis. He probably doesn’t have Jourdan Lewis-level instincts but he’s got a great feel."
It would take a number of guys flaming out for Thomas to look like the best option, especially considering his utility on defense. But like Lewis before him his ability on offense is still good news on the other side of the ball. This is a skill useful no matter who's throwing:
His third grab came on a seam route that was underthrown, but Thomas turned back to adjust to the ball, out-jumped the defensive back, then hauled the ball away and trotted into the end zone for the score.
One of the things that made Lewis so special was his ability to play the ball in difficult positions; Thomas has done all he can to suggest he'll be able to duplicate that.
Thomas enrolled early and generated the usual coach quotes. They were positive and not particularly enlightening. Brown:
"Ambry Thomas is everything I thought he’d be. He just learns and gets better every day; he’s not perfect. You know, we’re asking our young guys—those are young, young guys—to compete in first and second tiers and they’ve all handled it really, really well."
Lorenz heard that he was "smooth, explosive, and talented." His coach asserts that he will be the kind of film rat Lewis was:
"I think learning the schemes and concepts will be a big deal but he won’t shy away from that. You heard him; he’s going to be a film rat. As long as he gets those little finishing touches he’ll be fine."
And various reports held that he was the kind of hypercompetitive gent who fits right in there with Jim Harbaugh. Webb:
"This kid has the kind of mentality that infectious to a defense and team. … he is never scared on a football field. ANY football field. His game travels. He will play the same way in Columbus that he does in Ann Arbor. ... Thomas is a DOG and isn’t bashful about letting his competition know it."
Thomas didn't have a spring that should change our opinion of him, but that's a good thing.
Etc: wearing #1, because Harbaugh don't care. Mom was enthused:
First of all, congratulations! I'm sure you're extremely happy!
Yes, I am! He made the right choice!
How happy are you that the process is now over?
I am extremely elated!
Why Jourdan Lewis, but fast? Thomas is bigger and tests better than Lewis but both guys are in a similar range. Both were extremely proficient high school receivers, and watching Lewis use that successfully on defense pushes him ahead of other potential comparables like Leon Hall and Channing Stribling.
Lewis absolutely maximized his ability and had spooky ball awareness from the drop. He also became a terrific run defender as a senior. While there are many proclamations that Thomas is ahead of Lewis now, that's not a guarantee that Michigan will end up with a better—or even equivalent—version of him.
As mentioned, Hall and Stribling are other comparables. Thomas has a frame similar to Stribling but appears to be significantly faster and not cursed by fell powers.
Guru Reliability: High. AA game, Opening, healthy, little projection, some spread in rankings.
Variance: Low. Not much projection, just needs to add some weight.
Ceiling: High. Doesn't quite have an elite frame or elite speed but the combination is A- at worst.
General Excitement Level: Very high. Thomas is the third corner Michigan has picked up in the last two recruiting cycles who seems like a sure thing. A little weight, a little better tackling, and Thomas will have it all.
Projection: Uncertainty at corner means that he'll probably play early as Michigan tries to figure out who their best three or four guys are. If Long, Hill, Watson, and Washington are those guys you could see something similar to Long last year, where he gets shut down after game six to preserve a redshirt. If Thomas is on the two deep he'll have to play. Survey says 50/50.
Hill and Long are just one year ahead of Thomas so this could be a situation where someone gets locked on the bench a while. If they can all play, they'll all play. Michigan's lack of rotation last year was because of a big dropoff after the starters; while that might be the case in 2017 with Thomas a true freshman, going forward it's easy to project secondary rotation.
Thomas's ball skills and agility will also make him a candidate to return kicks.