Norwalk’s Thomas ready to realize NFL dreams
Noel Thomas has always wanted to be a Dragon.
No matter what, though, people always seem to qualify him as a Shark first.
Just days before his life might forever be changed courtesy of the NFL draft, which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday, Thomas — a Norwalk resident and former UConn wide receiver — reminisced on the first time it happened more than a decade and a half ago.
“Yeah, man, I’ve been counted out ever since I started playing football at 7 years old,” he said. “You want to hear a story?”
Just like that, Thomas — with his future on the gridiron and off it still up in the air — took a ride into his past, to when he was introduced to the sport of a football as a Mighty Mite player with Norwalk Pop Warner.
“My head coach at the time — I won’t name any names — but he had a system and everybody had to play,” Thomas said. “The starters were Dragons and the backups were Sharks. I was a Dragon for a while and then I got bumped down to being a Shark. I worked my way back, but my entire life I’ve been battling that.”
THOMAS BY THE NUMBERS
Part 1 — The High School Years
In Thomas’ high school career — one year at Norwalk High and three at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan — he rushed the ball 240 times for 2,804 yards (11.6 yards per carry) and 40 touchdowns. His senior year, he also played quarterback and was 31-for-53 passing for 559 yards and touchdowns.
By The Numbers, Part 2 — The College Years
After showcasing his athleticism at UConn on special teams as a freshman, Thomas got a lot of reps at wide receiver over the next three years. For his career, Thomas had 183 receptions, which is fourth in school history, for 2,235 yards, eighth in school history. As a senior, he set a new school record with 100 catches.
By The Numbers, Part 3 — The Draft Stats
At the NFL combine, Thomas ran the 40 in 4.63 seconds. He had a 32.5-inch vertical leap and a 9-8 standing broad jump. ... At UConn’s pro day, he bettered those numbers to 4.52 seconds, 33 inches and 9-10, respectively.
In other words, no matter what level of play he’s been at, Thomas has had to prove himself to silence his doubters and those who question his talent and will.
Now more than ever people will be questioning whether the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Thomas has what it takes to play on Sundays, following in the footsteps of Norwalk’s most recent NFL players Kevin Pierre-Louis, Silas Redd and DJ Morrell.
More than ever, Thomas is ready to prove his doubters wrong.
“It’s OK,” he said. “I just have to prove myself again.”
Like most players being considered for the draft, though, there are pros and cons to his game.
“From watching video on Thomas last season, it’s clear that he has some of the necessary ability to contribute in the NFL, likely in a slot receiver role,” said Bryson Vesnaver, who scouted Thomas for ProFootballFocus.com. “He has a massive catch radius, good body control and attacks the ball with his hands, making some incredible catches at times.”
But at times the sharks are circling in Thomas’ own game, the scout said.
“His biggest issue right now is consistency,” Vesnaver said. “He had seven drops last season, most of which were just a case of him taking his eyes off the ball. He also has inconsistent game speed, which may explain why his Pro Day 40-yard dash time (4.42) was so much faster than his NFL Combine time (4.63).”
There is enough talent there, though, that Vesnaver wouldn’t be surprised if a team spent a draft choice on him.
“All in all Thomas is a player that I think should be drafted because he could develop into a good receiver down the road,” Vesnaver said. “I think he’ll go in the Round 6-7 range.”
Thomas said if he is drafted he expects it to be on Saturday in the later rounds.
“I’m just trying to take it a step at a time and enjoy this process,” Thomas said. “Once the draft ends on Saturday, I know it’s going to take off from there. I’m hoping to get a phone call.”
If Thomas goes undrafted, he knows a free-agent offer will be coming. He just isn’t sure where.
Thomas said his phone has been blowing up this week as a lot of teams are touching base with him.
“This week, man, it’s been crazy,” he said. “I’ve been getting calls from like every team. It’s hard to figure out this draft process. The business is very cutthroat. A call could mean little or it could mean a lot. I just don’t know.”
Thomas has already been through an up-and-down pre-draft process.
He was invited to attend the NFL combine, where scouts and NFL brain trusts seem to love big numbers more than they love what the players can actually do on the field.
As such, Thomas — whose combine time in the 40-yard dash of 4.63 seconds was outside of the top 15 — isn’t sure what to expect.
“I feel like you never figure out the draft process,” he said. “I’ll never understand how it works with the combine and all the testing numbers. It’s all hype. At the end of the day, players are going to play and the best are going to stay.”
It’s been the story of his football life. And most of the time Thomas has stayed on the field of play.
Playing for his father, Noel Thomas Sr., at St. Luke’s, Thomas played running back his sophomore and junior seasons and saw a lot of action as quarterback his senior year.
By the time his career was done at St. Luke’s, Thomas had carried the ball 240 times for 2,804 yards (11.6 yards per carry) with 40 touchdowns.
Still, with the announcement he was going to attend Division I UConn and play wide receiver, the doubters were back again.
After being a key special teams player as a true freshman, Thomas started seeing regular playing time as a wide receiver during his sophomore season.
His junior year, he was the No. 1 receiver for the Huskies, who went 6-7 and qualified for a bowl game under former head coach Bob Diaco.
“He can run, he’s big, he’s got soft hands, body control and runs crisps routes,” Diaco said before the start of Thomas’ junior season. “The sky is the limit for Noel.”
During a 16-10 loss to Marshall in the Tropicana Bowl that season, Thomas didn’t have a single reception.
While it didn’t relegate him to Shark status — he remained UConn’s No. 1 target during his final season — it did ignite a new fire under him.
Those closest to him noticed as he raised his game to an even higher level.
Eric Campbell only spent one season as Thomas’ wide receiver coach at UConn, but he liked what he saw.
“He’s taken coaching and he’s willing to work,” Campbell said before the start of Thomas’ senior season. “Every day he’s coming out and giving it his all. That’s one thing I like about Noel.”
His big senior year might not have led to team success — the Huskies were 3-9 overall and Diaco was fired — but it put Thomas on the radar of NFL scouts.
Thomas hauled in a school-record 100 passes for 1,179 receiving yards (11.8 yards per catch).
For his career, Thomas had 183 receptions — fourth in school history — for 2,235 yards, eighth in school history.
Those numbers alone will secure him a phone call Saturday.
It might be during the draft. It might be right after, with a free-agent contract being offered.
But he’s going to get his shot.
Once again, Noel Thomas might be a Shark.
But he’s still trying his best to become a Dragon.