Alex Jacobson isn’t the coddling type.
The Dobson football coach saw all the potential in the world in running back T.J. Thomas last season, but since his maturity didn’t match his talent, Jacobson planted him firmly on the bench.
If Thomas was told to do something and didn’t like it, he threw a fit. With a team that struggled to a 2-9 record, Thomas was more worried about individual goals than team goals. And that’s why the only running back in Arizona with more than 1,000 yards this season couldn’t pass up a sophomore on last year’s depth chart.
“Freshman, sophomore year I was this great (player),” Thomas said. “Junior year I come out, and this was varsity football. I’m thinking I could do the same thing, but I just wasn’t coming out with the right mindset. It hurt (not to start). It hurt really bad to see an underclassman starting over me. But he put in the work that I didn’t. He deserved it.”
Thomas had two options after the regular season came to a close on his junior year, in which he ran the ball 29 times for 125 yards. He could stay the course, maybe see some cursory touches and finish up a less-than-memorable high school career, or he could dedicate himself to realizing the potential everyone knew he had.
“I told him, ‘Our team is going to go as you go,’” Jacobson said.
Thomas said he realized the error in his ways about midway through last year, and once the offseason came, he flipped the switch. He was one of the senior leaders intent on getting the Mustangs back to respectability.
He lifted weights with the offensive line, pushing himself to the limit alongside teammates who outweighed him by 20 or 30 pounds.
“I tried to do the weights they did, although sometimes it didn’t work out,” Thomas said. “But I wanted to work with them to get as close with them as I could. I knew I would hopefully be running the ball (behind them).”
It didn’t take long at all for Thomas to burst onto the scene. In the first game of his senior season, he had 19 carries for 375 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-20 win over Westwood. He followed it up with 278 yards against Desert Mountain, 145 against Corona del Sol and 346 against Skyline.
Thomas has 92 carries for 1,144 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. His yardage total is 292 more than Arturo Martinez of Tonopah Valley, who is second in the state in rushing, according to Maxpreps.com.
“He became a better player because he changed his attitude — that was the bottom line,” Jacobson said. “Yeah, he had some nagging injuries and everything else, but he changed his attitude and it’s made a whole world of difference. He made the decision to get after it, and that’s what we needed.”
Dobson is 3-1 on the year, looking for its first winning season since 2007.
The Mustangs are coming up on the meat of their schedule. They have a contest against winless Mesa on Friday, but follow that up with games against Mesquite, No. 6 Chandler, No. 1 Hamilton, No. 3 Desert Vista and Gilbert to end the year.
Thomas knows people are still in wait-and-see mode to see if he, a total unknown just a few months ago, and the rest of the Mustangs can perform against the state’s elite.
“These games that we’ve been playing — Desert Mountain, Westwood — all the teams we’ve played have been good,” Thomas said. “They’re not horrible teams, like (we’re playing) eighth grade teams. These are men trying to play football. People might think that (Dobson will tail off), but when we get to Hamilton and Chandler, we’re going to go as hard as we can. No matter what the scoreboard says, if we win or we lose, we’re going to try our best.”
In the age of football camps, summer leagues and other avenues that give high school football more attention than ever, it’s rare to find a player who comes out of nowhere to lead the state in rushing. In all actuality, Thomas has been here the whole time. But with an old-school coach, he needed to earn his playing time.
Now that he’s done so, Thomas doesn’t want to do anything to mess it up. Ask him about individual accomplishments or playing in college next year, and he nearly winces, worrying about falling back into last season’s me-first attitude.
Dobson’s season success very likely hinges on how well Thomas plays the rest of the way. He just doesn’t want to think like that any more.
“Everybody comes up to me and tells me about all these stats I have,” he said. “I really don’t know about them. I don’t want to listen to it and get big-headed.I don’t want to turn this into last year again when I was selfish. I’m just trying to do everything coach asks and stay humble.”