He’s a freshman, and freshmen offensive linemen rarely start in the rugged SEC.
He played center in high school. When was the last time you heard of a center moving to tackle?
He wasn’t even a highly rated center, earning three stars from each of the major recruiting services.
He packed just 290 pounds on a 6-foot-6 frame, suggesting he lacked the heft and strength to compete with SEC-caliber defensive linemen.
He had virtually no experience as a pass protector – a necessity at tackle – because his high school team rarely threw the ball. Moreover, what little pass-blocking he had done came against stumpy nose guards, not explosive defensive ends.
Tennessee’s coaches knew two things about Coleman Thomas that the public did not, however: One, he is exceptionally athletic. Two, he is exceptionally coachable.
How athletic? He starred in football, basketball (post) and baseball (first base, pitcher) at Max Meadows High in Fort Chiswell, Va.
How coachable? He didn’t flinch when Vol coaches asked him to play tackle: “I’m going to take anything they tell me to do,” he recalled. “If they tell me to stand on my head I’m going to try to do it.”
Tennessee’s staff has not asked Thomas to stand on his head to date but he apparently has the agility to do it.
“He played basketball, can dunk, and he played baseball,” Vol offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. “I went and saw him pitch in the spring. He’s a big athlete.”
Head coach Butch Jones is equally impressed with Thomas’ agility, noting: “He’s very, very athletic and he has good toughness.”
Being a modest sort, Thomas says he was “never a dominant basketball player” but that “I always prided myself on being athletic.”
Athleticism is vital for a tackle since he must neutralize speed-rushing defensive ends on pass plays, seal outside linebackers on sweeps and ramble downfield on screen passes. Thomas can do all of these things, which is why Vol coaches gave him repetitions with the first-team offensive line on Day One of spring practice.
“It was overwhelming that they were giving me a chance,” he recalled. “I think the first day of spring practice they were giving me this chance, and I’ve just kept working hard.”
Mahoney says he saw tackle potential in Thomas from the outset.
“He’s got the big tackle body and the frame to do the things a tackle does,” the Vol aide said. “The thing that’s extremely exciting about him is how physical he played in high school his senior year. It was a maturing phase for him.”
That “maturing phase” is ongoing. Although he says juniors Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson and Mack Crowder have “taken me under their wing,” Thomas admits that the adjustment from high school center to college tackle is a tricky one.
“It was,” he conceded. “Tackle is mostly one-on-one outside. At center you’ve got a little more help. But I got in the playbook, and those three guys I mentioned really helped me.”
Twenty-five pounds of added bulk and strength has helped, too. Now tipping the scales at 315, he no longer looks slim.
“I’ve been working hard in the weight room,” Thomas said, “so hopefully I can be the best player I can be.”
“There’s definitely competition in the SEC,” Thomas said, “but those two guys there are definitely top-five defensive ends in the SEC.”
The fact he holds his own against Vereen and Maggitt is a credit to Thomas’ adaptability, since pass blocking was a foreign concept back at Fort Chiswell.
“We ran the ball nine out of 10 times in high school, so that was the hardest thing to get a grasp of – learning how to pass block and all of the different techniques,” he said. “I think I’ve made strides since the spring, and I just want to keep getting better.”
The guy who lines up next door at right guard has seen Thomas’ strides up close.
“When he first came in he was a little frustrated … not knowing what he needed to know,” Kerbyson said. “Playing next to him, I’ve helped him out. He’s starting to come into his own and starting to be more confident, which really helps him out on the field.
“At first it was a little different for him, a little faster going against the D-ends and stuff. He’s still working on his technique today. He wants to be perfect.”
Tennessee’s coaches aren’t asking Coleman Thomas to be perfect. They aren’t asking him to stand on his head. They are asking him to make the transition from high school center to college tackle. That’s a huge challenge in its own right but it’s one he’s handling quite well.
Is he surprised by his success?
“I wouldn’t say surprised,” he said. “I’m extremely blessed. I just trusted in my hard work and knew it would all pay off.”
Coleman Thomas video interview