During the offseason, Navy inside linebackers coach Steve Johns challenged Micah Thomas to be more physical this season.
Thomas didn't take the comments as a criticism. Instead, the senior used them as motivation to improve.
Thomas has delivered in a big way for the Midshipmen, becoming one of the most versatile players in the American Athletic Conference. Entering this season, he lost 8 pounds to improve his quickness, and as a result, he can deliver even bigger game-changing hits and more effectively drop back in coverage to break up a pass or make a critical tackle.
"There's no part of my game that I can't improve," said Thomas, who started 27 straight games entering the 2017 season. "There are some things I do better than others. Physically, mentally, speed, I think I can improve in all facets of the game. There is no game or year where I won't need to improve on everything. You can always get better.
"There are professionals still getting better. Who am I? I just need to get better all-around, especially in the physical department. If that's what [Johns] wants, he's in charge, so I'm going to do it and do it the best that I can."
Thomas has played a significant role in an improved Navy
defense. In five victories to start the season, he recorded 31 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble.
Thomas is carrying over the momentum he built last year when he was named second-team All-American Athletic Conference. He led the Midshipmen with 107 tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss.
During the Armed Forces Bowl against Louisiana Tech and its high-powered offense last year, Thomas finished with nine tackles. He also had a key sack for a 7-yard loss and a quarterback hurry.
Those types of plays can be contagious.
"To me, Micah is really the complete package," Johns said. "He's big, he's fast, he's extremely intelligent. He plays very hard and is really a leader out on the field. The sky's the limit in terms of his development."
Thomas hails from Cedar Park, Texas, a key recruiting area for Navy, which has 24 players from the Lone Star state on this year's roster. Thomas attended Vista Ridge High School, where he played baseball and football. As a senior, he was named first-team All-State. Thomas was also named the Co-Centex Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
Thomas was recruited by several colleges, including SMU, Texas-San Antonio, Texas-El Paso and Air Force. He committed to Arkansas State and was prepared to stay in the South. However, a coaching change at Arkansas State changed his mind, and Navy was able to convince him to come to Annapolis, Md.
"Honestly, the education was the biggest thing for me," Thomas said when asked why he chose the Naval Academy. "From the schools that offered, this was the best educational opportunity available, so I had to take that chance and come here to make that possible."
Thomas exceled at linebacker as a high school senior after spending some time playing other positions. At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, Thomas is able to run well and bring down opposing running backs with bone-jarring hits.
"I played defensive end for most of my time in high school," Thomas said. "But my senior year, I did get to play inside linebacker. We did run a 3-4, so it is kind of similar. When I came here, it was kind of like raw skill because I was still feeling it out. I hadn't played it a whole lot. So, sophomore year, when I got thrown in the mix, I started learning and perfecting my craft. I was trying to be the best I could."
As a college freshman, Thomas appeared in six of Navy's last eight games in 2014. He worked his way into a starting role the following season, ranking second on the team with 73 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He started all 13 games and earned second-team All-East recognition.
He also began to take on more of a leadership role. Thomas has since become the "quarterback" of the defense, helping put his teammates in the best position to win games.
"For me it was thinking for other people," he said. "We're the play-callers so we have to get everyone lined up," Thomas said. "If anyone is confused out on the field, they can look to us and we'll know where to align them. I take pride in knowing the defense really well. I also take pride in being physical and giving great effort."
This year, Thomas has continued to mentor younger players, while keeping Navy on track for a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game and another bowl appearance.
"I just want them to be better than I was," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to carry it on and not be selfish with what I've been taught."
Thomas is on track to graduate in May with a degree in political science. He is considering extending his military career as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corp.
Thomas has no regrets about challenging himself with the rigors of the U.S. Naval Academy.
"I would have done it again, as hard as some times were," Thomas said. "The struggle I go through with these guys is hard, but it's unmatched. They're my best friends for life."
Issue 238: October 2017