Aug. 10, 2009
By Jeremy Cothran
SEATTLE - Growing up on the Olympic Peninsula, Joel Thomas spent his youth glued to the success of the University of Washington's football team. Even when the Port Angeles native left the state to star at Idaho, and later further his coaching career there, he always kept tabs on the Huskies.
So when the new UW running backs coach meets with potential Huskies, he's quick to share experiences of his teenage years attending games at Husky Stadium, and how exciting it was to be around the program.
"My last memory of Husky football is what this program really needs to be like," Thomas said. "Growing up on the west side (of the state), you wanted to go to the University of Washington. Now it's a tremendous opportunity to be involved."
Now he's part of coach Steve Sarkisian's impressive rebuilding project in Montlake. Hired on this winter, Thomas brings a track record of success from his various stops in college football, most recently with Purdue. While in West Lafayette, Ind., Thomas mentored running back Kory Sheets, who rushed for 1,131 yards last year for the Boilermakers and is now taking part in 49ers training camp.
Prior to his stint at Purdue, Thomas was the co-offensive coordinator at Idaho, where he worked with current defensive coordinator Nick Holt - the former coach of the Vandals. There is a sizeable Idaho contingent on this current UW staff, including offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, with whom Thomas was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 2008. Thomas got to know Sarkisian when he visited University of Southern California one offseason to work a camp, and the two kept in touch. When conversations about a job became serious, Thomas sold Sarkisian with his enthusiasm about the project.
"Sark didn't want to have to convince someone to be enthusiastic. He wanted a guy with a lot of passion," Thomas said. "We work too many hours to come into this building and not have fun going to work."
The Huskies are still sorting out their running back situation, but Thomas will manage a group that is high on potential, but might require a little seasoning. The headliner of the unit, so far, is redshirt freshman Chris Polk, a 5-11 burner from California who shined during spring camp. Also expected to contribute are sophomore Willie Griffin and freshman Demitrius Bronson. But Thomas noted that with the exception of senior fullback Paul Homer, there is not a lot of experience, something that can only be acquired with time.
"We're a young crew," Thomas said. "We're a group that A, we need to understand what we're doing and why we're doing it, and then execute it. And then we have to continue to mature."
To speed along the process, Thomas plans to simulate game reps and situations with his unit in fall practices so when the Sept. 5 game against Louisiana State rolls around, the players grow accustomed to the speed and aren't confused about the offensive schemes or packages. One added benefit could be the work the running backs did over the summer in terms of strength and conditioning, but only if the player actually shows improvement on the field.
"I expect it to translate over," Thomas said. "You don't lift all summer to go pose in a bodybuilding magazine. You lift and train all summer to go play on Saturdays. So I expect them to at least be better, physically, then they were last April."
Another way to facilitate the learning curve was to bring back former players. Thomas called up several of the former Husky running backs and told them to swing by the football offices whenever they life, whether it be just to chat with players or participate in meetings. One player Thomas reached out to was Napoleon Kaufman, who Thomas grew up watching. He wants players from that championship era to impart their experiences to today's athletes.
"My door is always open," Thomas said. "Come in the meetings. I'll give you all the time you want. These kids need to know the history."
Aside from football, Thomas has rediscovered life in his home state and particularly enjoys everything about Seattle. The jogs around Green Lake with the dogs and his wife, for instance, weren't something he could do back in Indiana. He experienced SeaFair weekend for the first time ever.
"This city has so much to offer," Thomas said. "So many things that we were missing in West Lafayette. I enjoyed my time there, but this city has a special place in my heart."
POST-PRACTICE UPDATE: The Huskies took the field for their first fall workout Monday afternoon at about 3:00 p.m. on a breezy day at Husky Stadium. About 300 fans were on hand, including the usual smattering of former players and others with long associations with the UW football program.
With respect to all the others, the most notable of those types was former Husky quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who was more than just a spectator. Tuiasosopo has taken a job in the UW weight room as an assistant strength & conditioning coach, working with the football team.
The star of the Huskies' 2000 Pac-10 and Rose Bowl champions is still listening for offers to get back into the NFL, but in the meantime, will spend his days on Montlake.
Another Husky who hadn't seen much action on the field lately, but was back out there today, is senior safety Jason Wells, who was back in practice after having recovered from an Achilles tendon injury. A starter in 2006, Wells' 2007 was cut short due to injury and he didn't play at all last year.
"I'm happy to be out here," Wells said. "I cramped up abit, but I suppose that is to be expected. It feels good to finally be back out and competing for a job.
In his post-practice meeting with the press, Coach Sarkisian shared a few bits of news. Freshman cornerback Desmond Trufant isn't currently in camp as he clears up an issue with the NCAA Clearinghouse. Sarkisian hopes that he can resolve the issue quickly, saying it could be as little as a week.
Sarkisian was pleased overall with the first practice of the fall. Asked about the notion of a clean slate, he pointed out that there were several position groups that seemed to be brimming with competition, noting the wide receivers, defensive backs, defensive line and tailbacks.
The Dawgs will be back at it Tuesday with another 3:00 p.m. practice.