With Keith Kirkwood lined up across from him, Derrek Thomas got in his stance and prepared to challenge the redshirt-junior wide receiver in one-on-one drills.
In the team’s first practice of the spring season, the redshirt-sophomore defensive back was transitioning to life on the defensive side of the ball after entering the program as a wide receiver.
Following the snap from the quarterback, Kirkwood ran past Thomas, who could not react in time to stay with the receiver.
“When I first got to corner, I thought I was going to line up and run with guys and it was going to be easy,” Thomas said. “But when I got burned and exposed, I knew my technique had to be right. Everything has to be on par. I was so awkward with it at first.”
After appearing in six games in his 2014 freshman campaign, Thomas redshirted last season.
Before the team traveled to Boca Raton, Florida, for the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 22, Thomas switched from wide receiver to defensive back.
“He’s was trying to catch the ball and he wouldn’t catch the ball,” coach Matt Rhule said. “He was always getting yelled at and I said, ‘Put him at corner, the kid doesn’t like to catch.’”
In his first drill as a corner, Thomas was matched up with then-sophomore wide receiver Adonis Jennings.
The now junior ran a streak and Thomas matched him stride for stride on the route, breaking up the attempted pass downfield.
“When they moved me to DB, it was like I got new life,” Thomas said. “I enjoyed it so much more, and you can see that in my play and emotion. I thanked coach Rhule.”
Last season was not Thomas’ first introduction to defensive back.
As a sophomore at Bishop Maginn High School in Albany, New York, Thomas played cornerback on the varsity team for one season before switching to wide receiver the following year after growing five inches over the summer.
“I remember my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to be Deion Sanders,” Thomas said. “I was 5-10, everyone else’s height. I’m on varsity as a sophomore playing corner.”
Following his position switch in college, Thomas began watching YouTube videos of Sanders, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, and former Florida State University defensive back Jalen Ramsey.
“He is taking it very seriously because he knows it’s a big transition, and he’s going to have to contribute early,” junior defensive back Sean Chandler said. “He is on top of his game, watching film and everything else.”
To prepare for this season, Thomas has been spending extra time at night in Edberg-Olson Hall, the team’s practice facility.
Thomas and the other defensive backs come together for an extra session after watching film with their coaches.
“He has a chance to help us,” Rhule said. “My thing with Derrek, as long as Derrek’s energy and intensity is up, then his talent is. He is freaky unreal how talented he is. But he’s got ups and downs. The good news is the peaks and valleys are starting to even out.”
Thomas will also call on his time as a receiver when practicing in drills or analyzing film.
“I can take a lot of that with me because I know from playing receiver if you have a certain split, I know where you want to go,” Thomas said. “I know if you are running down the field and you are applying pressure here, I know where you are going to go. Playing receiver helps me tenfold. I know what you want to do because I used to do it.”
The defensive back said he will use his time at Milford Academy in 2013 to prepare himself for the work he will need to put in for the 2016 season.
As a wide receiver, Thomas totaled 446 yards and four touchdowns on 15 catches for the preparatory school in New Berlin, New York.
“For me, it was a shock to me coming from high school to prep school because now you have to get up at 4 a.m. every day,” Thomas said. “You have to lift until you can’t lift anymore. You have to run until you are exhausted every day. You have to play at your highest level every day.”
Michael Guise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.