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Countdown to kickoff — Player showcase: Omari Thomas

Tennessee’s got a big man to fill the big shoes left by Matthew Butler

NCAA Football: Georgia at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest narratives/ concerns/ storylines of Tennessee’s 2023 season is the defense. Let’s pare that down some, focus on the defensive line and look to who’s going to replace the double-take invoking production of Matthew Butler.

But first, a brief nod to the eventual 5th-round NFL Draft pick: Butler led the DL position group in just about every statistical category out there, all while playing a staggering 726 total snaps, which ranked him seventh nationally among defensive linemen in the NCAA. And only one of those players who played more snaps graded out better than Butler, according to Pro Football Focus’s all-encompassing, defensive grading metric.

So, I reckon it’s fitting that one of the most prominent main characters, to one of the biggest plots in the story of Tennessee’s success or failure this year, would be one of the team’s biggest humans: junior Omari Thomas.

Listed at 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, Thomas most definitely looks the part. Here’s a screenshot of Thomas’s media availability from August 8th.

via VolQuest YouTube

Most guys stand at the podium, but here, the podium is standing at Thomas. I think he has a neck there, somewhere, partially hidden behind the beard and barricaded in on both sides by trap muscles that might have their own zip codes.

But his aesthetic isn’t gonna help the Tennessee’s defense take a much-needed step forward (literally and figuratively), nor will it help Thomas fill the production void Butler left in the middle of the Vols’ defensive front.

A former consensus 4-star prospect from Briarcrest in Memphis (same HS as Vols’ RB Jabari Small), Thomas was the No. 2 ranked player in Tennessee in the 2020 class and was naturally considered a pretty “big,” get for the Vols’ former coaching staff.

A brief aside and trip down memory lane: the Vols did well recruiting Tennessee in 2020, nabbing several top-ranked, instate players: No. 1 (Key Laurence), No. 2 (Thomas), No. 4 (Tyler Baron), No. 8 (Cooper Mays), No. 9 (Bryson Eason), No. 10 (Martavius French), No. 15 (Tamarion McDonald), No. 17 (Small) and No. 25 (Tee Hodge).

The combination of Thomas’s size/speed/quickness garnered him playing time in his first year with the Tennessee defense, and the young bull made appearance in all ten games of the Vols’ of the 2020, COVID-shortened and all inner-conference schedule. Such is life as a lineman, his stats don’t jump off the page — 110 total snaps and 10 tackles with one tackle for loss.

Last season, though, is when we really started to see flashes of Thomas and the problems he can create for opposing offenses at the point of attack.

That poor running back from South Alabama never had a chance. A perfectly-timed blitz from former Alabama transfer Brandon Turnage occupies the blocker that I think was supposed to slide over and get a body on Thomas. But Omari bursts off the line, and the end result is a reenactment of a scene from “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with Thomas playing the role of “giant boulder.”

The above clip was from Tennessee’s 11th game of the season, and Thomas was well in his groove by that point. The next clip, though, is from the Vols’ seventh contest in 2021 — Ole Miss, in Knoxville.

I don’t pretend to know enough about football to describe for you what happened here schematically. But I have eyes, and my goodness Thomas just blows through the interior of the Ole Miss offensive line. I figure a blocker missed an assignment, via negligence, inability or by the grace of unforeseen Devine intervention. It took Thomas all of one second to rudely impose on Matt Corrall’s personal space and cause a safety.

That one play represents a sort of microcosm of Thomas’s game against Mississippi. Via Pro Football Focus’s various grading metrics, this was the sophomore’s best game of the year against SEC competition. I know I’m outside of most of our target-audience demographic here, but Thomas against Ole Miss was his version of DMX’s intro to “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot,” (widely regarded as one of the best intros to an album, ever).

In a more literal sense: Thomas’s game versus The Landsharks/ The Black Bears/ The Rebels was seemingly the point in the year when things clicked. He started playing more and playing better.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, and I start throwing numbers at you like Hela throws swords in “Thor: Ragnarock,” a universal truth in football: a player has to be on the field to make plays. Novel stuff, I know. So there’s a counterpoint here that, of course he made more plays, you rube, he was playing more. True. But we’ve gotten enough precipitation in town lately. Go rain on somebody else’s parade.

Instead, I’m going with the notion that Thomas’s late-year uptick in playing time and production represent the snapped twigs and footprints of a trail that leads to an even more productive season for him this season.

Thomas’s snap counts went from averaging fewer than 20 per game the Vols’ first five games to nearly hitting a 30-snap average in the season’s final eight contests. In UT’s last five games, Thomas started four of them and notched 40, 34, 36, 32 and 30 snaps, respectively. Now, it’s important to again give context here, regardless of how obvious it was to the eye-test last season:

Tennessee’s defensive line, on the interior especially, was, well, let’s go with, um, undermanned last season. In total, the Vols had three players log at least 200 snaps on the defensive front, with the aforementioned Butler logging the 700-plus plays that could’ve easily been split into a reasonable workload for three separate players. Thomas finished second with 331 snaps and former Kansas transfer Da’Jon Terry had 275.

More, comprehensive context — via the Vols’ contemporaries — Kentucky and Bama both had five DLs play at least 200 snaps, while both Florida and Georgia had four. The 200-snap mark is really just an arbitrary benchmark that I decided on. I didn’t peruse the numbers of each of the 14 teams in the conference (so minus 10 Big-J journalism points to me), but at least, the provided numbers are something quantitative to reinforce what we witnessed in the D-line being overwhelmed at times last year.

By season’s end and relative to the rest of UT’s DLs, as a true sophomore with the least experience of any regular contributor, Thomas ranked at or near the top in the both the traditional statistical categories that most websites keep up with and in the more granular stuff that Pro Football Focus has made Cris Collinsworth millions of dollars by tracking.

Thomas finished last season second to Butler in tackles with 17 and finished tied for second with Terry in QB pressures, hurries and hits with eight, seven and one, respectively. He led Tennessee with four balls batted down at the line of scrimmage (only two other DL managed even one batted ball) and graded out as the best tackler of the Vols’ 10 defensive linemen who played at least one snap. A step further: Thomas’s 81.5 tackle rating ranked him second in the SEC (behind UGA’s Jordan Davis) and placed him in a tie for 20th among all the 1,000-ish defensive linemen in the NCAA.

Now, full disclosure — even with Thomas’s natural gifts and a statistical career arc that’s trending up, he’s got room for improvement. Pro Football Focus gave him the worst run defense grade in the Vols’ position group, excluding Amari McNeill and Maurese Smith since they played a combined 11 snaps.

Conversely, though, within the run-defense sphere of PFF’s grading metrics, they track something referred to as “stops,” and then also math out that player’s “stop percentage.” The difference between a tackle and a stop, per PFF’s key: “tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense.” I interpret that as scenarios when the defensive player wins his matchup against the opposing team’s blocking assignment.

While Thomas graded out atrociously in run defense, he still finished second on the team with 12 stops and had the best stop percentage of any Vol DL who played more than 70 run-defense snaps. That seems counterintuitive, but a theory: the poor grade could be chalked up to a then-still relatively inexperienced player missing assignments or screwing up his run fits but still managing to make plays when he found himself, accidentally, incidentally or on purpose, in position to do so.

His pass-rushing stats, some of which I addressed above, popped as interesting, too. He didn’t convert any of his eight pressures or seven hurries into sacks and managed just one QB hit in 178 pass-rush situations. While getting to the QB isn’t necessarily the interior defensive linemen’s primary objective, without somebody on the interior DL causing some pass-rush havoc, there’s subsequently more pressure on the rest of the defense to get at the QB. It’s a chain reaction.

Not being able to generate any push or pass rush from the interior of the defensive line means defensive ends, like Tyler Baron and maybe Dominic Bailey or Bryson Eason, may be more apt to lose their contain discipline and give up a big run on an option play or something because they’re so focused on pressuring the QB. Or maybe the lack of pressure from the front four means Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks has to rely on blitzing extra linebackers or defensive backs. Blitzes will always be cards defensive coordinators can play, but it’s sure helpful if it’s a tactic the coach doesn’t always have to rely on. You probably get it and don’t need me explaining it to you.

Juniors Da’Jon Terry and Elijah Simmons are both back, as are seniors LaTrell Bumphus and Kurott Garland. Thomas is the most naturally gifted of the bunch, by a wide margin I’d say, other than maybe Simmons.

Simmons, who is a former state-title winning shot putter and discus thrower in high school, is supremely athletic at his size (6-4, 340 pounds).

But he played in just seven games last year due to injury and has been in-and-out of full-go participation this fall camp for the same reason. I think I heard Brent Hubbs of VolQuest say it best, regarding Simmons becoming somebody the defense can count on: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

I’m also really excited about the potential of incoming freshman, former 4-star prospect Tyre West, but this is Omari Thomas’s year. If he can build on his first two seasons and make a significant impact, it would go a long way to helping Tennessee be even just a reasonably-decent defensive team. And then if that comes to fruition, and opposing defenses haven’t figured out Heupel and the Vols’ offense — this could be a fun football season.