Boise State football spring preview: RB Derrick Thomas embraces fresh start

By Chadd Cripe
ccripe@idahostatesman.com
© 2014 Idaho Statesman

Through the spring, I’ll preview each position.

Today: Running backs.

Previously: Offensive line, quarterbacks, defensive line, tight ends

Thomas relishes ‘fresh start’ after ‘self-inflicted’ struggles in 2013

Boise State senior tailback Derrick Thomas was supposed to provide immediate production as the backup tailback and some veteran leadership last year when he arrived from Butler Community College.

He did neither.

Thomas rushed 32 times for 95 yards (3.0 yards per carry) in nine games. Five tailbacks and two quarterbacks rushed for more yards.

Thomas was suspended for the first and last games of 2013 for violations of team rules. He did not have a carry in the first three games or the last three.

“I was (frustrated),” he said Wednesday, “but that was last year. I’m trying to lose memory of that. It was pretty hard, but it’s the past, so I just leave it in the past.”

Thomas admitted that some of what held him back last season was “self-inflicted.”

“Things that I should have overcame,” he said.

He may have benefited from the coaching change as much as any player on the team. So far this spring, Thomas has earned raves for his play. Twice, he has been the offensive player of the day in practice.

“His whole approach has been good,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “What he’s done in the film room, what he’s done in the weight room, in the classroom, just everything. As a senior, things start to click.”

Said offensive coordinator Mike Sanford: “Derrick Thomas had a monster of a first session (of spring ball).”

Thomas said he has tried to improve his approach to practice by using every day to improve. He also is more comfortable after more than a year on campus.

He received advice from former defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who also came to Boise State from Butler and endured some disciplinary issues.

“He told me just work, just work every day — whatever you want, just work and you’ll get it,” Thomas said.

“… I feel like I can be a playmaker and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

And he’s enjoying the chance to prove that to a set of coaches who didn’t witness last year’s struggles.

“That’s exactly what I look at every day as — a fresh start to showcase my talent,” he said.

PERSONNEL AT A GLANCE

Roster
Tailback
23 Derrick Thomas, 6-0, 225, R-Sr.
27 Jay Ajayi, 6-0, 216, R-Jr.
21 Jack Fields, 5-9, 197, Jr.
26 Devan Demas, 5-8, 172, R-So.
10 Jamel Hart, 5-10, 206, R-So.
35 Charles Bertoli, 5-11, 190, R-So.
37 Ryan Wolpin, 5-8, 191, R-Fr.
39 Skyler Seibold, 6-1, 188, Fr.

Signees:
Jeremy McNichols, 5-10, 190, Fr.
Cory Young, 5-10, 180, Fr.

Returning starters (1 of 1): Ajayi earned All-Mountain West honors last year and enters 2014 as one of the leading contenders for Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. He rushed 249 times for 1,425 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and 18 touchdowns. “That guy is so patient,” Sanford said. “I just love his patience as a runner. He gets behind his pads and rolls.”

Key losses: Aaron Baltazar, who rushed for 234 yards in five games as a true freshman, tore an anterior cruciate ligament last season and left the program in December.

Key returners: Fields (139 yards), Demas (125), Bertoli (115) and Thomas (95) have game experience. At least one of them needs to step up and prove he can be a reliable backup and possible replacement for Ajayi given the physical nature of the position. “I like the running back group a lot,” Sanford said. “I think people are going to be surprised at how deep it is. Those guys are getting a chance to play and for us to see they have different skill sets. I think it’s going to be a strength of our offensive group.”

Projected starter: Ajayi.

Other players to watch: Fields, Demas and Bertoli likely are jockeying for position behind Ajayi and Thomas.

Out for spring: None

Incoming signees: McNichols, a former Utah commit, and Young give the Broncos some much-needed youth at the position after the loss of Baltazar and the decision to play Fields as a true freshman in 2012.

Notes/quotes:

— Thomas is up to about 230 pounds, an accident. “Just happened,” he said. He hopes to lose 10-15 pounds before the season.

— Thomas said the new scheme requires “physical, just downhill, runners — and that’s me all the way.”

— Fields on the new coaches: “I have an opportunity to compete once again and kind of have a second start, which you normally don’t have.”

— Fields on Ajayi: “He’s a hard worker. The thing a lot of people need to know about why he’s successful is he stays in the film room. He’s a student of the game and I respect that. That’s the thing I know I needed to work on, staying in the film room and making sure I understand all parts of the offense.”

— Fields on his role: “I know my time will come. I’m a hard worker. I just stay humble. I just keep on working. And I know it will come, because I’m taking the steps necessary.”

— Ajayi on the new offense: “I’m getting to do a lot more running the football from under the center, which is good. I get to do a lot more power running, which I like to do.”

•••

Here is the updated list of Boise State practice players of the day.

•••

Here is today’s story on defensive line coach Steve Caldwell.

A few leftover quotes that didn’t make that story:

— Caldwell on joining Bryan Harsin’s staff at Arkansas State: “I was sold on him. He was really well organized. He knew what he wanted to get accomplished and he had a plan to go get it done.”

— Caldwell: “I love practice. I love the meetings. Saturdays make my stomach hurt in the fall. This time of year is more fun than the Saturdays are for me. I love to compete, though. The games make you sick to your stomach but when they’re over and you won it’s a lot of fun. It’s something that I’ve been blessed to do. It’s what I wake up and get excited about every morning.”

— Running backs coach Kent Riddle, who was with Caldwell at Arkansas State: “Steve brings wisdom, expertise, intensity. He’s a fun guy to be around — very demanding of his players, but he gets those guys to play hard and play well.”

— Lauren Rudd, Caldwell’s daughter, on her parents: “They’ve been married forever. My mom has to be away from him some. She comes back here (to Tennessee) and stays with us. She’s just so much more relaxed when he’s around. It’s a really neat dynamic.”

— Rudd: “His players have always loved him. He’s motivating but he’s disciplined, too. They have fun with him. He had some players who called him the Silver Fox when he started getting his gray hair. … He’s always been a great Christian example to those guys, too, and you can see they appreciate that. The parents, when he’s recruiting, that comes across.”

— Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer: “He’s a great staff guy. He sees the big picture. He doesn’t mind challenging a staff member, but he’ll do it in the right way.”

— Fulmer on why Caldwell is effective as a position coach: “He got close to them, one, and made them appreciate the chance to be coached and they liked him. He spent time with them to get to know them personally and then he always worked to their strengths. He was a guy who wasn’t hung up on one particular technique necessarily — he would find what the guy did best and coach him the best he could to help the football team.”

— Fulmer: “Steve is one of those guys who is a high-level coach. He needs to be at a place like Boise or like some schools in the SEC.”

The Caldwell story is part of a months-long series of profiles of the Boise State coaches, which won’t end until August. Here are the previous stories on Kent Riddle and Andy Avalos.

•••

I’ll post my wide receivers preview tomorrow. Here is today’s interview session with wide receivers coach Junior Adams:

•••


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Chadd Cripe has spent the past 12 years as the Boise State football beat writer. You can follow him on Twitter @IDS_BroncoBeat.

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