Undersized defensive end makes big impression, big plays for Vanderbilt

Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 11:16pm

Size is invaluable to football coaches.

It is an element they can’t coach. Sure, they can push a player to drop a few pounds or add weight. But when it comes to height, wing span or hand size, a coach’s power can only go so far.

That is when will and determination make up for physical prowess. Possessing high energy or coming equipped with a motor — as coaches like to call it — can be just as valuable.

And that is what Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin thinks he has with Johnell Thomas. The redshirt junior defensive end weighs 250 pounds but is listed at just 6-foot, making him the Commodores’ shortest defensive lineman.

That lack of height, however, hasn’t kept Thomas from breaking by the offensive line during Vanderbilt’s spring practices. Most recently in Saturday’s scrimmage, the Orlando, Fla., native raced to the quarterback for a couple of sacks, including a safety, and he also recovered a fumble.

“It is like anything else in life, you would love a guy who is 6-5,” Franklin said. “But you can also look at it from the other perspective: there have been some really productive undersized, from a height standpoint, defensive linemen. Right away you have built-in leverage [with shorter players]. If you are 6-5, you have to learn to really bend. He has that [leverage]. ... He is a big, strong, physical kid. He has a really good motor.”

Thomas was in with the first-team defense on Saturday as redshirt-senior Tim Fugger sat out with an injury. Fugger returned to practice on Tuesday night.

“Any time a guy goes out, you always want to be the guy ready to step up and take on that role, emerge as a leader,” Thomas said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “I feel that is what I am trying to do right now.”

After Thomas redshirted in 2008, he subbed in at defensive end and participated in special teams in six games in 2009. Last year, however, he saw more action behind Fugger.

Thomas played in all 12 games last fall and made his first career start against Florida when Fugger was out with a neck injury. Thomas set career-highs in total tackles (22), solo stops (12), tackles for loss (4.5) and quarterback sacks (1.5).

“I just feel like I got better completing my assignments as a player and being where I needed to be, which in turn caused me to make more plays or chances to make plays,” Thomas said. “Chances for that can always improve.”

He’ll most likely enter summer camp as second on the depth chart behind Fugger. Thomas, however, is trying to make the most of his time this spring with the hopes that he can propel into a starter’s role.

“It depends on how this springs goes, how much I improve,” he said. “I’m not counting on my seniority or anything to be a starter. I’m just counting on how hard I work and trying to emerge as a leader.”

Thomas is part of a crowded defensive line, as the Commodores will be three-deep at all four positions once injured players T.J. Greenstone (defensive tackle), Rob Lohr (defensive tackle) and Thad McHaney (defensive end) return.

“The defensive line, once we get those guys [back], I think we have some depth there,” Franklin said. “I think we’ll have 10 defensive linemen that can play within a game. Does that mean all of them are going to play 30 plays? No. But I mean 15 plays, 30 plays, 40 plays, different rotations based on their strengths.”

But not their size.