For a tailback with just 28 career touches in two seasons at Georgia, he’s probably had as many stories written about him, fans buzzing about him and coaches and teammates lauding him as anyone on the Bulldogs’ roster.
Part of the allure is his size. At just 5-foot-7, Thomas makes for a good underdog story. Part of it is his talent. He rushed for nearly 2,400 yards as a senior in high school and routinely dazzles on the practice field at Georgia.
As much as anything, however, it’s Thomas’ personality that endears him so easily to the people he meets. He’s as tenacious as they come, so while he hasn’t found much on-field success yet, his attitude has never wavered.
“I really don’t look at anything as disheartening,” Thomas said. “I look at it more as motivation. Maybe there was something I was doing that the coaches saw that held me back last year. So now I’m just looking at it as motivation this year to make sure that when I get my carries, they’re promised carries instead of just waiting on some carries.”
It appeared those carries were at hand a year ago. Last spring, Thomas was one of just two healthy tailbacks on the roster, and his G-Day touchdown run endeared him to fans eager to see a replacement emerge for the departed Knowshon Moreno.
When fall camp opened, Richard Samuel and Caleb King were the front-runners for the starting tailback job, but it was Thomas who continued to post big numbers during scrimmages and generate glowing reviews from teammates and coaches.
But for all his highlight-reel runs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, he failed to find much success on Saturdays last fall. After getting nine touches in Georgia’s first two games, he had just 19 more the rest of the season, mostly in mop-up duty late in games.
And yet, this spring, Thomas remains every bit as enthusiastic as he was when he was the rising star a year ago. Just two practices into the spring, head coach Mark Richt was already praising Thomas’ performance, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said the rising sophomore has shown significant strides since last season.
“It’s probably tough for him but Carlton has a great attitude, he’s working extremely hard,” Bobo said. “Taking care of the ball was a little bit of an issue and he’s worked at that very diligently. He’s gotten stronger. We like what we see out of Carlton, and it would be great to get him into the mix, too.”
That mix, however, proved to be a fairly exclusive club by season’s end last year. King and freshman Washaun Ealey exploded down the stretch, revitalizing Georgia’s running game, while Thomas watched from the bench, failing to earn a single touch in the final four games of the year.
Through it all, Thomas continued to work, remained upbeat and never complained.
“He’s always working and always keeps a positive attitude,” King said. “He doesn’t care what position. He’d play defense. That’s just Carlton.”
So as Thomas begins his second spring with the Bulldogs, he’s hoping this year is less about turning heads with a few big plays and more about earning the confidence of his coaches with consistent and dynamic performances.
“Going into the spring, I just want to get my hands on the ball any way possible, whether it’s out in the slot, running some screens, returning some balls,” Thomas said. “That was one of my main goals was to not just wait on carries but to get on the field and do anything the coaches need me to do to make a play.”
From what King has heard, that’s exactly what the coaches are looking for Thomas to do, too.
Bobo said Thomas is a likely leading candidate for punt return duties this season, and running backs coach Bryan McClendon said if Thomas can prove he’s up to the task of pass blocking, he’ll be in line for his share of carries out of the backfield.
More than that, however, Thomas may fill a vital role as a slot receiver – a position Georgia finds itself in short supply of with just six wideouts on the team.
Of course, that’s no slam dunk, but Bobo said he’s interested in trying it out.
“It’s just not something that comes very natural,” Bobo said. “He does a pretty good job of catching out of the backfield but lining up in the slot is something that he hadn’t done. But he’s a hard worker in practice and if he continues to do that, he’ll get an opportunity in the fall.”
Whatever Thomas’ role is, he’ll bring that tenacious work ethic with him.
And this year, he hopes the stories written about him during the preseason are dwarfs by the headlines he creates this fall.
“I feel like any opportunity is a chance, and I just want them to take a chance on me,” Thomas said. “I can do it, so I pretty much just have to grasp what they’re doing out there and be comfortable when the coaches call.”