It's very hard for any freshman linebacker to come in and start right away. Playing linebacker is like playing quarterback and it takes a long time for any linebacker to learn a defense inside and out. Linebackers coach Bob Simmons told us in the fall that a linebacker can take up to two years or longer before he is ready to play.
Mitchell Thomas is trying to expedite that learning process. "I just have to learn the system," said Thomas. He (Simmons) told me to always be ready because you never know when a linebacker will go down. I've got to be ready to play—just learn what I've got to do and learn the defense."
Thomas says the Irish defense is a lot more complicated than the defense he played in high school. "It's a whole different scheme. You've got to check out of defenses. There's more stuff to it, it's a lot more complicated than what I was used to in high school. I'm still trying to adjust to that."
Simmons told Irish Eyes previously that Thomas has a lot of athletic ability. Thomas says Simmons has told him the same thing and that he needs to get stronger. "The speed, my athleticism--I'm long, rangy with long arms and I can lock onto tight ends," said Thomas of his best attributes. "I've just got to get stronger, put on more weight so I can hold my ground better."
Adjusting to playing at the college level has been difficult for Thomas but he says he knew it would be difficult before he arrived. "I kind of figured it was going to be difficult, it's the college level. Linebackers are like the quarterbacks of the defense. If someone is lined up wrong, we've got to know that, we've got to get them set up right."
"It's kind of soaking in now," Thomas continued. "I've got the basic formations down now, I just have to get out there and learn the different game-type of defenses. When we did the base defense during two-a-days, I learned that, but they add different things to the base defense. When you play a certain team, you're going to have certain type of defense for that type of team and that is what I need to learn."
Thomas will red-shirt this year and he says he's fine with that. His focus is now learning the defense so he's ready to play next year. "I'm going to get some reps under my belt on the scout team. Just learn the defense more—learn what I've got to learn so when my time comes, I've got some experience. I'll try to add some weight and hopefully I'll get some game experience next year."
That game experience is what Thomas is all about. One can tell he really wants to play. "It feels good just to be part of the team. We have a great tradition here and one of the main reasons I picked this school. Hopefully next year I'm going to be out there, right now I'm getting the sideline experience but I want to get the field experience."
The Alabama native says he knows he has to gain some size before he's ready to play and says he's started to add some weight from the 210 pounds he reported at. "I'm right around 217 right now. I probably need to be around 230. I need to add some upper body strength."
The first month for any freshman is hard. A player leaves his comfort zone and goes from being "the man" to a number. Thomas says the first month at Notre Dame was difficult for him. "That first month was hard for me. I was real homesick, I wanted to go back home. I talked to my parents, they told me to stay here and accomplish what I came here to do. There was nothing back home for me, either way, I had to stay here."
Thomas says he's found peace in his teammates. He really enjoys hanging out with the members of the Irish team. "Everybody on the team is straight. Aint nothing like it, first time I came here, everyone was introducing themselves and we went off from there. I get along real well with everyone here."
The freshman class overall is pretty tight according to Thomas. He wasn't sure how talented they were at first but he sees that talent now. "At first I kind of thought this was an average class but when Greg Olsen left, Coach called us in and said we needed to stick together and we can become a great team. You see some of those guys playing and you see this class has talent. We've just got to stay together and we can become a great class when we're juniors or seniors."
The hardest adjustment so far for Thomas has been the weather—it usually is for kids who grew up in the South. "The hardest thing would be the weather--mostly just the weather and the environment. It's kind of the same as to where I'm from but people have a little bit different ways from where I'm from. Everything is going great, but I do think I'll have to adjust to the weather here."
When all is said and done, Thomas came here for two reasons. He says he's going to make sure he accomplishes both things while at Notre Dame. "I want to be one of those players, when I come back, that people remember--the All-Americans that are remembered. I'm just going to focus on getting my degree and becoming the best football player I can be."
We haven't heard much about Mitchell Thomas yet—you can bet we will in the future. Thomas has excellent speed and athletic ability and we think it's just a matter of time before we see that on the field. Thomas could become the next great linebacker at Notre Dame.