Some will tell you that football is a cerebral game, a chess match, my ability to move defenders around and your ability to read it, smart and heady players and coaches outsmarting the opposition.
Adonis Thomas, on the other hand, would tell you to quit thinking so much.
The University of Toledo running back had 335 yards rushing through the first seven games last season and never reached triple digits on the ground in any of them. Then he broke loose for 763 yards in the next six games.
When all was said and done, Thomas had the second highest rushing total in the Mid-American Conference — 1,098 yards — and also was the Rockets’ No. 2 receiver behind the ultra-productive Eric Page, grabbing 31 passes for 372 yards.
The astounding turnaround, he said, came about when he “turned my brain off and stopped thinking so much. I just started reacting and the game became fun again.”
An eight-win season and a bowl game was certainly fun for UT’s players, and they have their sights set on even more in 2011, a season that begins Thursday night at the Glass Bowl against New Hampshire.
Thomas will be a big part of anything the Rockets, preseason favorites to win a MAC title, accomplish. That was certainly the case a year ago.
It’s not as if he were invisible early in the season. His 79 rushing yards helped key a win at Purdue, and he followed that with 94 yards in another nonleague game against Wyoming. But there wasn’t a lot of consistency, which meant there was a lot of frustration.
“At first, I was having phenomenal practices, but it wasn’t happening in games,” Thomas said. “I was trying to be too perfect, make all the perfect reads, do everything perfectly. I got the starting job, but I didn’t want to lose it. I had to take a chance. So I decided to just go out and let everything happen naturally, to just rely on my athletic ability and quit worrying about everything. My production improved drastically.”
Down the stretch, he had four games with 130-plus yards on the ground, capped by 24 carries for 193 yards in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl loss to Florida International. Thomas was about all the offense UT could muster with 184 all-purpose yards at Northern Illinois. He ran for 163 yards and caught five passes for 72 yards against Bowling Green, then hauled in five more passes the following week against Central Michigan.
It’s no surprise Thomas turned into something of a “slash” for the Rockets, who tried him in the slot receiver position before turning him loose in the backfield. Even at his Newark (N.J.) high school Thomas was a big part of the passing game.
“All my life, I’ve been a little undersized for the position I played,” said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior. “So finding ways to get me the ball in space as a receiver was a key to avoiding a lot of wear and tear on my body. I was able to show how good I could be in space especially with mismatches against linebackers in coverage. It’s part of being a complete back.”
UT coach Tim Beckman said Thomas’ performance at Purdue was something of an eye-opener for the coaching staff.
“From there, we tried to build on the things Adonis could do,” Beckman said. “It was a matter of us getting to know him and him getting a grasp of the offense. He has exceptional quickness and speed, and the passing game is just another way to get the ball to one of our best playmakers.”
Thomas was first recruited to Kansas State of the Big 12 but said he was never comfortable there and left before the first kickoff. In researching his next stop, he was impressed by the number of former Rockets — Chester Taylor, Lance Moore, Bruce Gradkowski, and John Greco among others — playing in the NFL.
“There was a sense of family, a group of brothers, an atmosphere that I wanted to be a part of,” he said.
And the Rockets welcomed this guy with the rather unique first name, a name out of Greek mythology.
“I have an aunt whose old boyfriend was named Adonis, and my mother told me she liked the name. She researched it later and told me she knew all along I was going to be a ladies’ man,” Thomas said with a chuckle.
“I didn’t like it when I was younger because it was so different. But when I became an athlete it was sort of catchy for the same reason. I’m pretty much the only Adonis out there.”
It’s a special name for a player determined to have a special season in 2011.
“We are very, very determined to win,” he said. “Practices have been intense without the coaches having to dial it up. We want to exceed all the expectations and not be just a good team, but a great team. It really started last year when guys became upset with losing. That meant we were starting to believe.”
Thomas senses that UT’s fans feel the same way.
“Man, there’s a lot of buzz around town,” he said. “It’s a different atmosphere, for sure, when you’re winning. We go out in the community and people recognize us and they know our names.”
From the midpoint of last season on, it has been impossible for Toledo fans to forget the name Adonis.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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