Dec. 25, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TEMPE, Ariz. - The biggest challenge for Lawrence Thomas isn't knowing all of Michigan State's fullback assignments while remembering everything he has to do at the defensive tackle position.
It's making sure he's in the right mind-set depending on what side of the ball he's playing.
"When I go on offense, I've got to make sure I'm out there protecting someone from getting tackled," Thomas said before Tuesday's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl practice at Corona del Sol High School. "When you're on offense, you have to be controlled and poised and make sure you do the play the right way.
"When I go on defense, I have to turn the animal in me on, go crazy and make plays."
Thomas doesn't mind being MSU's Jekyll & Hyde two-way player.
"If I'm going to play both positions, that's what I have to do," he said.
Thomas, a red-shirt freshman, lined up at fullback for the first time in the second game of the season at Central Michigan.
However, he came to Michigan State from Detroit Renaissance as one of the nation's top-rated prep linebackers, so he considers himself a defensive player by trade and temperament.
If he had a chance to beat TCU on the final play with a block that springs tailback Le'Veon Bell for a touchdown or a sack of Horned Frogs quarterback Trevone Boykin, there's no question which one Thomas would choose.
"I like them both because each one gets us the win, but I'd have to say getting the sack to end the game would be great," he said. "I started out mainly as a defensive player, so you know I have defensive aggression going for me."
Although Thomas was raw, MSU's coaching staff realized it had to get his combination of zeal, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound frame and 4.7 speed in the 40 on the field somehow, some way.
Eventually, Thomas filled a need at fullback and in addition to some crushing blocks, he contributed seven catches for 78 yards and a long-gainer of 23 yards in the win at Wisconsin.
Thomas' offensive success didn't stop defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi from envisioning him chasing down running backs, however. Thomas returned to defense in a spot where the Spartans can use his athletic ability and range against TCU's spread offense.
How many plays Thomas gets on defense is still being worked out, said defensive line coach Ted Gill, and the number of times he lines up on offense will be determined by the situation, according to running backs coach Brad Salem.
"He's a good athlete who's still learning how to play," Gill said. "But he's a good student of the game. Anytime you can find a guy who can run and do all those kinds of things as a great athlete makes me excited that he's on our team.
"I think he's just going to help our football team because he's such a great kid and he learns fast."
It's not uncommon for a defensive lineman to see spot duty as a blocking back, but most two-way players who line up for series at a time on both sides of the ball are of the receiver/defensive back variety.
Whether Thomas will continue to play two high-contact positions throughout his career remains to be seen.
"It's hard to answer that question because he's so young," Gill said.
Thomas hopes he can play the dual role for as long as possible.
"I look forward to it a lot because it gives me a chance to show my talent and athleticism, and my ability to play both positions," he said. "I really do take a lot of pride in it because it shows how versatile I am.
"I've been getting reps on both offense and defense, so I'm ready for whatever. Working with the running backs all season has prepared me to play defensive tackle with my footwork."
Thomas can run with the ball or to the ball, depending on where MSU needs him most.
"It's not like you're throwing him in two positions where he's not experienced," Salem said. "He has a very good football IQ, so he has the capacity to do it. Both are very physical positions but he's limited from an offensive perspective because of playing a bunch of personnel groupings.
"His position (fullback) isn't on the field all the time, so it's not like he's playing 100 plays on both sides of the ball. It's something he's done a nice job with and we need to find ways to use him. He's an old-school football player."
It's fitting that Thomas' eye-catching jersey No. 8, which he inherited from former quarterback Kirk Cousins, is cloaked with ambiguity. Linemen generally wear a number from 50-99 and fullbacks fall in the 30-40 range.
"The player's got to make the number, and I've been wearing No. 8 all my life in high school and little league (football)," Thomas said. "They just gave me No. 8 one day and I just stuck with it. It really means something to me because I've always played numerous positions. I played running back in little league, linebacker, receiver, tight end."
Thomas imagines himself one day receiving the ball directly from center in the wildcat set, which would make him not only a two-way player, but a dual-threat to run or pass.
"If they've got some plans (for me in the wildcat), I'd do it," he said. "I've got a nice little arm, too. I played quarterback in high school in a couple formations my senior year."
Next thing you know, Thomas will be talking to MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo about playing power forward and Spartans baseball coach Jake Boss with regard to joining the pitching rotation.
That would make him a three-sport, two-way, dual-threat athlete.