Carlson: How Sooner defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas became OU football's most improved player and 'MVP of the defense'
Isaiah Thomas knew he could transfer to another school.
A better situation was out there, that seemed certain.
But he stayed, first at Tulsa Memorial High School, then at OU.
“I thought probably transferring was not taking the easy way out, but it wouldn’t have been in the best interest for me or my family,” the Sooner defensive lineman said.
He was talking earlier this month about his decision to stay at OU, but he could’ve been talking about Memorial just as easily. Neither situation has been perfect for Thomas, but on the day the Sooners play at Texas Tech, there’s never been someone who better personifies what can happen when you put your head down, get to work and make the best of your situation.
“Probably the most improved ballplayer on our entire team,” Sooner coach Lincoln Riley said of Thomas.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said, “Probably the MVP of the defense up to this point.”
Thomas, a fourth-year junior, already has more tackles this season (13) than he's had the rest of his college career (11). He leads the team in quarterback hurries with five and is tied for the lead in tackles for loss with 4.5.
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And it doesn’t matter where he lines up, inside or outside, tackle or end — he is making plays.
Take his third-overtime edge rush against Texas. With the Longhorns facing a long third down, Thomas zipped past the right tackle with a hand swipe, then a shoulder dip. When Sam Ehlinger saw 6-foot-5 and 267 pounds of crimson and cream coming around the edge, he bailed out of the pocket and into the arms of Nik Bonitto, who got the sack.
“You don’t see a lot of guys that size doing that,” Bonitto said of Thomas, who had also hurt his shoulder earlier in the game. “On the field, you can just see from last year to this year, he just made such a huge jump.”
That leap might never have happened if Thomas hadn’t stuck it out, first at Tulsa Memorial, then at OU.
Thomas was a standout at Memorial from the time he walked through the door, starting for the football team as a freshman. He wasn’t quite as tall or broad as he is now, but he could always move. Run. Jump. Elude.
As athletic as he was, he worked every bit as hard.
“He just kind of had a presence about him,” said Brian Worrell, who was then an assistant at Tulsa Memorial and is now the head coach. “We knew he was going to be special.”
It wasn’t long before Thomas was getting college scholarship offers. Coaches were calling. Recruiters were visiting.
“That was quite, quite different, especially for our football program,” Tulsa Memorial athletic director Mark Dover said.
Boys’ basketball at the school has long been a powerhouse, winning state titles and sending players to college, including the Boone twins at OSU. But when Thomas arrived at Tulsa Memorial, the football program hadn’t won a playoff game since 1988 or produced a big-time college recruit since Randy Hughes in the 1970s.
Thomas knew there were better prep programs close by where he could’ve gone.
But he never seriously considered it.
Thomas had family ties at the school — several members of his extended family had been Chargers — but as much as anything, he was committed to Tulsa Memorial because it had committed to him.
The same was true of OU.
Even though he played primarily on special teams the past two years and would get snaps on the defensive line sporadically, he believed he could earn more opportunities. Working and waiting was difficult at times, but there was a quote he thought of almost daily.
Adversity defines a man’s true character.
“I knew that if I wanted to see … how good I can actually play, I knew I’d have to play through this adversity,” Thomas said. “I just stayed the course and I believed in the coaches and I believed in myself more importantly.”
He knew he could be successful wherever he was.
He had done it before, after all.
“I’m a walking example that if you believe in yourself and your body of work and you put yourself out there and you just put your best foot forward,” he said, “you could end up at a school like this.”
You could achieve anything, too.
Isaiah Thomas has.
“He just kept going,” Sooner defensive tackle Jordan Kelley said. “Not everything played out the way he wanted it to, but he just kept fighting, kept pushing.”
He didn’t have to change his location to change his situation.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.