Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Thomas getting comfortable at FSU
By David M. Hale
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Like most freshmen a week into fall camp, Matthew Thomas looks uncomfortable.
His surroundings are new, his teammates are new and the playbook is new. For the first time, the game is moving fast enough that Thomas' five-star body struggles to keep pace.
"He's still young and trying to get the college feel and know that he can't just beat people with speed," senior Telvin Smith said. "But he's going to be a great linebacker."
It's been a long trip for Matthew Thomas since picking Florida State on national signing day.
That much has never been in question for the nation's top linebacker recruit, but for a few chaotic weeks this spring, nothing else about Thomas' future seemed certain, and fans were looking for answers wherever they could.
On national signing day, Thomas' letter of intent slithered through a fax machine in Jimbo Fisher's office, securing Florida State the crown jewel of its 2013 recruiting class. Thomas would later claim that decision came under duress -- pressure from family, he said -- and by early May he was looking for a way out, telling the Miami Herald, that he planned to attend USC or Georgia instead.
The firestorm erupted, the will-he-or-won't-he debates raged. The footage of his signing day announcement was parsed like the Zapruder film, with his malaise practically inviting fans to read between the lines for a deeper meaning. He posted a photo on Instagram of himself wearing a USC ski cap, and Florida State fans assumed the worst.
Thomas didn't speak to the media after his initial statements. His high school coaches pled ignorance. Fisher and Florida State's coaching staff scrambled to reopen the lines of communication, but the drama lasted for six weeks with few concrete answers.
When the dust settled, the saga ended just as it began, with Thomas reluctantly choosing Florida State. A few days later, Thomas added a photo of his new FSU student ID card on Instagram with the caption, "It is what it is."
"He didn't really want to sit out a year and due to the fact that he committed to Florida State on signing day, the downside was if he wanted to decommit, he'd lose eligibility," said Billy Thomas, Matthew's father and the most vocal member of his camp throughout the recruiting saga. "He wanted to go to school, and he wanted to play football. So as he thought about it, he was like, 'Well, I guess it's not that bad.'"
What happened between signing day and Thomas' enrollment might never be fully explained, but all parties agree on a basic storyline.
Thomas wavered in the waning days before signing day between a handful of top schools. His mother pushed hard for Florida State, wanting him to remain closer to home. During his announcement interview , he repeated again and again that his decision was about family.
By May, however, reality set in, and Thomas had second thoughts. Fisher agreed to a release, Thomas would have to sit out a year before he could play at another school, and Florida State had no intentions of saying goodbye gracefully.
"You were always worried, but I felt very confident about it because of our relationship," Fisher said. "It was just opening up the lines of communication."
Fisher and his staff kept in contact with Thomas. Fisher had endured his share of recruiting drama in his years as a coach, though he admits this situation -- three months after signing day -- was unique.
Florida State players called regularly, urging Thomas to follow through on his commitment, too. Several players had built a rapport with Thomas throughout his recruitment, and they offered reminders of why he'd wanted to play for the Seminoles in the first place.
As the clock ticked toward the start of summer enrollment and his options dwindled, Thomas eventually relented.
"Basically Jimbo told him, 'You're going to lose eligibility, and we want you as our five-star recruit,” Billy Thomas said. “‘You committed to us and we committed to you.' Once [Matthew] thought about it, he was like, 'OK, I think that might be the right fit for me.'"
Fisher doesn't allow freshmen to speak with the media, so Matthew's side of the story remains under wraps, but even within Florida State's locker room, it isn't discussed.
"It has never been mentioned with me," linebackers coach Charles Kelly said. "The one thing I don't do and Coach Fisher doesn't do -- the past is the past. We're looking forward. I've always had a good relationship with Matthew, and if you'd been watching him since he's gotten here, you'd have never known that stuff went on. You'd have had no idea."
It's not that his teammates weren't curious. They'd seen the reports and heard the rumors just like everyone else.
"At one point in time, you couldn't help but follow it," Smith said.
Smith didn't pry, but he felt a need to take Thomas under his wing and make sure the new freshman felt at home.
The two players found they had a lot in common, and Smith eagerly shared stories of his own anxious moments before arriving at Florida State.
"I let him know I was in the same position," Smith said. "I gave him that blanket and let him know everything was going to be alright."
Around the locker room, Thomas has been welcomed with open arms. A majority of players waver on their commitment at some point, Fisher said, so there was empathy for Thomas' plight.
It has helped, too, that Thomas hasn't lamented his situation. Instead, he's embraced the opportunity and has impressed coaches from the outset.
"Matthew's come in, he's worked really hard, just been a good teammate, been soaking up a lot in the meetings," Kelly said. "I couldn't ask Matthew to work any harder than what he has."
With just two veteran linebackers on the roster, Thomas is poised to see action early this year, and Fisher said he's already making a push for regular playing time.
"When you're in the middle linebacker where he's at and all the stuff that's happening, the multiplicity of things happening is much greater," Fisher said. "And he's really learning. He can run and play."
Thomas has acclimated well off the field, too.
The recruiting chaos was the elephant in the room in the early going, but those memories have faded. Thomas was quiet when he first arrived, but he's come out of his shell and found comfort in his surroundings.
"He's fitting in well, and he's starting to open up," Smith said. "He's starting to be Matthew Thomas."