Tuesday, September 12, 2006

| by Jay

In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight
In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight

I'm still sorting through the euphoric haze of the big win over Penn State on Saturday. In the meantime, hoist a glass to Charlie's two-way monster, Travis Thomas. While a bunch of guys have cameoed on the other side of the ball over the years (especially defensive backs under Holtz like Jeff Burris, Willie Clark, etc), I think you have to go back to the days of Leon Hart (ed. note: or Dick Arrington) to find an ND player who put in significant time on both offense and defense. Thomas isn't a true two-way player -- nobody does that anymore -- but he's been getting more than a cup of coffee on offense in these first two games.

You've got to love a guy who can play all game at linebacker, a new position he picked up this year, yet still has enough juice left in the tank to burn out the clock against Tech, or bowl over a cornerback on a jawbreaking, helmet-ripping collision, and get into the endzone. Oh, and in between, play punt coverage, kickoff coverage, and serve as one of the three team captains.

On a team full of cult heroes, Travis Thomas might be the most improbable. It wasn't that long ago that Trav was fumbling against BYU, and was benched against Michigan. The next game he resurfaced against MSU, whereupon he fumbled again, and was finally stashed on the bench for pretty much the rest of the 2004 season. How bad was it? Thomas had six carries and two fumbles in the opener; the rest of the year, he only touched it 19 times, finishing with 25 rushes for 25 yards, a bad case of the shakes, and a shattered confidence.

Nowadays he's one of the shining, successful reclamation projects of the Charlie Weis renaissance. The trials of '04 are ancient history for Thomas. Back then, the coaches were afraid to give him the ball; now, his playing time is restricted only by his endurance, which seems to be limitless. After starring at running back last year as a change-of-pace battering ram from the shifty Darius Walker (especially in the Southern Cal game), he was asked to switch to linebacker for '06, his senior year.

Think about this for a second. The guy is benched as a sophomore, finally works his way back into the mix on offense under a new coach, and just when he's feeling supremely confident -- he had a hell of a Blue-Gold game at running back this spring -- Charlie asks him to switch positions for his senior year (he does have one more year of eligibility left). A lot of guys might take the proposal half-heartedly, or simply outright refuse to move. Not Thomas. After a short period of discernment, he jumped in and started soaking up the new position with enthusiasm. And while he's still a work-in-progress at linebacker, it's not for lack of effort. Here's an interview we linked earlier where Thomas talks a bunch about the move to the new position.

On Saturday, he was directly responsible for 14 points. His hit (along with Mo Crum) on Morelli was a killer for Penn State, who was trying to generate some momentum on their first drive of the second half. Thomas jarred the ball lose and Zibby scooped it up and took it in for a score. Later on Saturday, after his ramble on the fake punt (which was actually cued by Thomas, based on his sizing up PSU's defensive alignment), you could tell that Charlie wanted to give him a chance to hit the end zone, rushing him three times in four downs, and he finally got in on the sweep left. (Here's a video link of the play, care of The Extra Point).

The Chicago Trib had a pretty good recap on Thomas' exploits against Penn State.

Thomas, who blitzed on the [Morelli fumble], wouldn't mind getting a little love from the statisticians, as well. "I hope I get credit," he said. "I hit him first. But Mo might have knocked it out, so we'll see it on tape [Monday]. But it doesn't matter. We got six out of it."

Thomas almost got another six on a fake punt late in the third quarter. Still leading by 24, Notre Dame faced fourth-and-3 from Penn State's 48. Irish coach Charlie Weis would pin the Nittany Lions deep, right?

Nope. If we have learned anything from Weis after 14 games, it's that the man hates to punt. He doesn't view fourth down as a time to surrender. Before Thomas took the field as a punt protector, he said he got "an alert" from special teams coach Brian Polian: "He was like: `Hey, if they line up in a certain alignment, you're free to call [a fake]."

Thomas took the direct snap and knifed though the middle for an easy 43-yard run.

"It parted like the Red Sea," he said. Thomas, the starting weak-side linebacker, then stayed in the game for Notre Dame's goal-line package.

On fourth-and-goal from the 1--Weis likes field-goal tries about as much as punts--Thomas sprinted around left end and smashed into cornerback Justin King.

Next came a moment that will become legend in Notre Dame's film room. The collision knocked King's helmet off his head. Thomas loved it.

"That was personal," he said. "[King] is a Pittsburgh guy, from Gateway [High School]. So I just wanted to let him know that I'm from Pittsburgh too. I said a little something in his ear when his helmet was off but I think he was a little dazed, so he didn't know what was going on."

Would he even have wanted to know? Doubtful. The touchdown gave Notre Dame a 34-3 lead. Call it the knockout blow.
On Sunday after the game, Charlie was talking about Carl Gioia, but what he said made me think of Travis. A reporter asked Charlie if he was nervous about sending Gioia back out there for a field goal on Saturday after missing two against Georgia Tech, and Charlie elaborated on his philosophy on reestablishing confidence in a player who makes a mistake.
I was really happy for that situation to occur, especially early in the game. I said, Okay, Carl, let's go, you're in there. I think the sooner you can get a player out of that rut, the sooner you can break through, usually you can move past that. It's like a good quarterback, a good quarterback that throws an interception. It's always good after a quarterback throws an interception to come back and throw the ball again and get a completion. It's always good after your starting running back fumbles the ball, knock on wood, because that's not what I'm rooting for, but it's always important after he does that to give him a touch right off the bat and get that by him.
It was a circuitous journey, and he ended up in a place he didn't expect, but by virtue of a much-needed second chance and a deep reservoir of intestinal fortitude, TT is finally getting his touches. Hat's off to him.