With the thickest, yet friendliest of Southern drawls routinely slipping “yes sir” and “no sir” into every conversation, freshman running back Kentavious “Pop” Thomas’ Georgia roots are more pronounced than the bleached blonde locks draped past his brow.
The tousled dreadlocks sporadically shielding his eyes befit Thomas’ self-effacing disposition, deflecting attention from his new unfamiliar and occasionally unfriendly Southern California confines.
In stark contrast, his audacious on-field temperament demands undivided attention.
Thomas will probably never be mistaken for a Southern Californian, but his skills on the football field transcend geography. His uncanny ability to run the football has turned heads since he first picked up a ball at three years old, when his grandfather first started calling him “Pop-Pop.”
Now 16 years later, those transcendent skills have transplanted Thomas all the way across the country from the small town of Milledgeville, GA about 100 miles Southeast of Atlanta.
From getting acclimated to the gauntlet of practices, college classes, film sessions, position meetings and games– to sharing minutes in the backfield for the first time in his life and dealing with a nagging wrist injury that kept him sidelined for a few weeks– Thomas’ transition out west has been anything but smooth.
Early in the season Thomas struggled to get playing time, but without fail he would do something incredible and leave an indelible mark with at least one of his carries. After flashing brief glimpses of greatness, it seemed like only a matter of time before Thomas would take on a more prominent role.
As the 2015 season wore on, it became increasingly befuddling when the freshman running back whom many around the Fullerton College football program were buzzing about wasn’t getting more time on the field. Especially after hearing multiple teammates candidly state that Thomas was the best running back they have have ever seen.
It sounds like an overstatement, until you see Thomas carry the ball a few times. His uncanny ability to break tackles with a cat-like balance and accelerate through the hole is something to behold, as evidenced by his abnormally high 7-yards-per-carry average.
Unfortunately, unlike playing in Milledgeville where Thomas was the workhorse and averaged over 200 yards rushing per game– college provided much fewer opportunities for Thomas to work his magic. Entering the final week of the season, Thomas had missed four games and carried the ball just 29 times total in the previous eight games.
Sharing a backfield with other talented ball-carriers and nursing the aforementioned injury forced Thomas to bide his time. Whether coaches were making the freshman pay his dues or just being overly cautious with his injury, Thomas was for the majority of the season underutilized, relegated to cheering on his backfield counterparts Phillip Butler and Anthony Wood from the sidelines anxiously waiting to hear head coach Tim Byrnes call his number.
For the first time in his life, Thomas wasn’t the focal point of his offense.
“It was hard to get used to because you’ve got other great players at running back too,” Thomas said.
Like a big fish from a small pond being thrown into the ocean, Thomas struggled to acclimate.
The lack of activity had Thomas frustrated and even contemplating whether he made the right choice about coming all the way out to California.
“I had a lot of injuries and it was just going through my mind and I couldn’t take it, but after a while I started thinking maybe it was meant to be like this,” Thomas said.
Prior to the final regular season game against Palomar, Thomas had a breakthrough. He realized that his reserved nature came across to coaches as reticent, so he started opening up about his frustrations and vocalizing his hunger to get more playing time.
After a season filled with more downs than ups and a painstaking amount of frustration, Thomas broke out with a monster performance in the final game of the Hornets’ 2015 season at the Western State Bowl. Thomas finished the game with 16 carries for 148 yards and scored all three Hornet touchdowns, earning him the Player of the Game award afterwards.
“Maybe it was good for me to sit out. It humbled me and now when I’m on the field, I want to eat, I’m way more hungry,” Thomas said. “Next season, I think that I will have a break away season. I look at this year like a pre-season because I wasn’t taking as many reps.”
Thomas said the biggest takeaway for him this season was learning the importance of being more vocal towards his teammates and coaches.
“Everybody will help you if you ask, but if you just sit on the sideline and don’t say anything then the coaches won’t say anything, they’ll just [assume] you don’t want to play,” Thomas said about his transition to the college atmosphere.
It took some getting used to, but Thomas feels the backfield competition will make him a much improved player next season.
“When I got here, I didn’t know how anybody was, so I was just gonna sit here to myself and do my workout and everything on the field 100 percent,” Thomas said. “After I got to know all the players, they pushed me to go 110 percent because if one guy gets 100 yards in the game, the next guy is trying to get 200, that’s how we compete.”
Overcoming adversity this year helped put things into perspective for Thomas and given him a newfound hunger to get back on the field. He said that he is looking forward to working with his fellow running backs during the offseason to help the group get stronger and faster.
Thomas is confident that he will have a breakout sophomore season and plans on transferring to a Division-I football program afterwards. If the Western State Bowl casts a foreshadow of what is to come, then his sophomore campaign has the potential to be something truly special.