In the midst of fighting for the most competitive spot on Tulane’s depth chart, Eric Thomas found himself on the outside looking in.
On several occasions during preseason camp, the sophomore middle linebacker was sent to run laps around the field while sophomore Edward Williams and freshman Rae-Juan Marbley took snaps in his stead. That’s coach Curtis Johnson’s punishment of choice whenever Thomas lays a full hit in a non-contact practice.
The thud of Thomas’ shoulder pads into a running back is quickly met with Johnson’s invitation to join him across the field, followed shortly by an indefinite sojourn around the sidelines until it’s time to head back to campus.
“It shows me he doesn’t know how to practice,” Johnson said. “We have to do something about that. I want to practice a certain kind of way, and I don’t want guys injured on a practice field. He needs to learn that and if he doesn’t, I’m just not going to play him.
“It’s a really close competition and the guys who are the most disciplined and the smartest guys are the ones we are going to play.”
Johnson’s hard-line stance serves a lesson to Thomas. It’s fine to play physically but poise is what’s ultimately imperative.
Thomas admitted it’s not easy to see a ball carrier run by him or a pass fly over his head.
After spending last season behind two seniors on the depth chart and working his way into all 13 games via special teams, the former John Curtis standout recognizes the potential opportunities that await.
The 5-foot-10, 227-pounder earned the No. 1 spot in spring practice while Williams nursed an injury and Marbley prepared for senior prom.
Yet, if Thomas can’t stay on the field, Marbley and Williams are eager to take those snaps.
Each has earned repeated praise by the Green Wave staff and turned the middle linebacker depth chart into a straight line.
“I just don’t see a way we can keep all three guys from playing,” co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jon Sumrall said. “It seems like every day there’s a new leader out there.”
Thomas has a chance to harness his hostility and solidify his starting position on Aug. 28, when Tulane travels to Tulsa to open the season in its inaugural American Athletic Conference game. Until then, Johnson is more interested in seeing Thomas follow instructions rather than pound his own teammates.
“It is very difficult because when I’m on that field I just want to get in there and play tough and I don’t like people running by me,” Thomas said. “But coach CJ wants us to stay disciplined. He says if we aren’t disciplined, we aren’t playing.
“I was running so much in the first few weeks that I learned just to tap off. I can’t miss any more time for that stuff.”
But more than two hours into Thursday’s sweltering practice at Tad Gormley Stadium, Thomas was close to finding himself removed again, despite spending nearly the whole session with the first-team defense.
After running back Dontrell Hilliard poked through the line of scrimmage on a sweep, there was Thomas dropping an offensive player to the ground by plowing a shoulder pad into his chest. Sumrall promptly put his face into Thomas’ ear.
As Hilliard raced down the field, Sumrall chased Thomas for 40 yards, barking at his potential starter about cheap shots, listening and discipline. Still, Sumrall said in many ways he’s relieved there’s still a need to pull back on Thomas’ aggression.
It’s far better than the alternative.
“You want to have to tell a Mike linebacker to tone it down, because you shouldn’t ever have to tell them to pick it up,” Sumrall said. “He’s a tough guy and he wants to be a leader and football is very important to him. He took the reps with the first group today, and in a game, we think all three of those guys are going to play.
“During the first week of training camp, he was pretty much the status quo from the spring, but in the last seven to 10 days, he has really started to get his eyes working for him better, and he’s fitting in, and he knows what he’s hitting. He’s improved, and I just want to see him go all out because it could be fun to watch.”