UConn’s Thomas giving everything he has in last season
STORRS — Now, more than ever, Noel Thomas Jr. doesn’t want to look ahead.
The end is too close for his liking and the UConn senior wide receiver doesn’t want to have anything to do with that. Not yet.
Instead, Thomas — a Norwalk resident out of St. Luke’s School in New Canaan — looks to tomorrow. Then the day after that. And so on.
He looks to get better every repetition, every practice, every day.
The season-opening contest against Maine kicks off Thomas’ final season as a Husky on Thursday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. After that, there are only 11 games left — 12, maybe, it the Huskies win a second straight bowl berth — in his career.
But that’s big picture stuff and Thomas doesn’t want to go there.
“I think the biggest thing is taking it one day at a time, not even looking at Maine,” Thomas said last week at UConn’s annual preseason media day.
“It’s going to go by just like that,” he added, snapping his finger. “I’m just taking it step by step, day by day, game by game.”
When we last left Thomas, he was walking out of Tropicana Field, site of last year’s St. Petersburg Bowl, with a goose egg next to his name.
No catches in a 16-10 loss to Marshall.
It still stings, but Thomas is not looking back. He’s driven to succeed tomorrow.
“No receiver wants to see that number, but I feel like I’m going to do everything I can do help the team, no matter what it is,” Thomas said.
He’s worked hard in the spring and the offseason and reported to his final UConn camp ready to give the Huskies everything he has.
Those who know him best have seen it firsthand.
“Without looking back to the past, I’d say he’s been one of the top workers on the team,” UConn coach Bob Diaco said. “We grade every player, every play, every day, and he’s what we label a motor (guy). He’s been in that conversation every single day and he hasn’t wavered.”
Those seeing him for the first time are also impressed.
“Since the first day I got here, working with him, he’s a young man I’m proud to have as a player,” said UConn assistant coach Eric Campbell, who works with the wide receivers. “He’s taken coaching and he’s willing to work. Every day he’s coming out and giving it his all. That’s one thing I like about Noel. With that kind of work, hopefully he’ll have a big season.”
The seasons have gotten bigger every fall.
In 2013, former UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni burned Thomas’ redshirt freshman season by playing him in five games. He only caught three passes for 32 yards, but Thomas did prove to be a key player on special teams — especially punt returns, where he was one of the team’s top defenders late in the season.
His sophomore year, Thomas was a regular target for quarterbacks Chandler Whitmer, Tim Boyle and Casey Cochran, playing all 12 games and making 26 catches for 305 yards and four touchdowns. The Huskies went 3-9, though.
Last season, as UConn doubled its wins and became bowl eligible, Thomas more than doubled his production in catches (54) and yardage (719), but only scored three touchdowns.
The drop in touchdowns failed to bother him as long as UConn’s win total kept going up.
“People love to see touchdowns, and I, as a receiver, want to see touchdowns, but I don’t care if we win every game, 2-0,” Thomas said.
That kind of talk shows what kind of leader Thomas has become in four years.
“He had a significant amount of votes for captain,” Diaco said. “He’s represented his teammates and the staff very well. Where he might have been a little inconsistent in the past, not anymore. He’s always been a talented player, but he’s putting some professionalism into his game and that’s setting himself up for a really nice year.”
Added Campbell: “He’s been a leader in our room, yeah. He’s taken all the young guys under his wing and teaching them the ropes of the offense as well as the culture of how we do things here.”
On the field, whether he’s connecting with quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, or blocking downfield, Thomas consistently shows how far he’s come.
“Noel is a great player,” Shirreffs said. “If you look at him, you see so many things that don’t show up in the stat sheet, as well. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed different about him at this camp. He’s an unselfish player. I’m his friend on the field, but I’m an even better friend off the field, and I love seeing him be successful. I really feel good about where Noel and I are at on the field. He’s excited for the year and so am I.”
After this year, Thomas can hope for an NFL career, but that’s too far off in the future.
Before that is Maine. And before that are a couple more practices.
When all is said and done, Thomas won’t think about the games or the final records his UConn teams put up over the past four years.
“I think the biggest thing I’ll remember is growing up with the people I came in with,” he said. “Growing those connections, getting all these new brothers.”
They have one season left. Led by Thomas and his fellow seniors, the Huskies are hoping to make the most of it.