Thomas, the Cowboys starting “star” linebacker, is one of 14 players who will be starting a road game for the first time in their careers. How he and his teammates handle the hostile environment at Cajun Field will play a major role in whether the 22nd-ranked Cowboys return to Stillwater with a 5-0 record or with their first loss of the season.
The Cowboys don’t have much to be worried about if the 5-11, 216-pound junior from La Marque, Texas, plays like he did in Oklahoma State’s 38-35 victory over Texas A&M last week. He was all over in the field in recording eight tackles, breaking up a pass and getting credit for a quarterback hurry (which resulted in strong safety Markelle Martin’s interception).
Of course, the biggest play of the night occurred in the fourth quarter when Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson dropped the ball while scrambling away from Cowboy defensive end Jamie Blatnick. After defensive end Darius Hart failed in his attempt to scoop up the loose ball, Thomas picked it up and raced 63 yards for a touchdown to give OSU a 35-21 lead.
“James got a touchdown and he caused the first interception,” Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young said. “He did a great swim move on the running back and hit the quarterback just as he cocked his arm to throw and made it flutter out there for the interception (by Martin).”
Thomas has 19 tackles (fourth most on the team), two broken up passes, one quarterback hurry, one blocked punt and the fumble return for a touchdown through the first four games.
“I still believe I can do better. There’s always room for improvement,” said Thomas. “I’ve been getting tons of opportunities and chances to make plays, so I’m just running with it.”
His play hasn’t surprised Young, even though the Cowboy veteran was pushed by a pair of first year players – Joe Mitchell and Shaun Lewis – when preseason drills began in August.
“I wouldn’t want to say we didn’t expect it but it certainly has been pleasing to see him play the way he has. James has a lot of talent and he has a lot of experience, and when you put those together he’s got a chance to make some plays,” said Young.
“He was (pushed by Mitchell and Lewis) for a little bit but it was pretty obvious pretty quick that he was going to be the guy,” added Young.
Thomas began his OSU career as a safety and made the move to the “star” linebacker position when Young arrived prior to the 2009 season. He was a member of several special team units last season while backing up senior Andre Sexton.
“Sexton was like a big brother to me. He took me under his wing. He was my host on my recruiting visit. We just bonded together. He taught me how to be a leader, how to lead my team and make plays,” said Thomas, who received a congratulatory telephone call from Sexton immediately after the Texas A&M victory.
Playing alongside Sexton for the last three years taught him a lot about the game and life.
“Character,” Thomas said when asked what he learned from the former Cowboy. “He’s a great guy. He’s always on time, he always does things right. I picked that up from him. I try to follow his footsteps. He was a great role model.”
But Thomas wants to be known as more than someone who follows in Sexton’s shoes.
“I wouldn’t say Andre Sexton, I would say James Thomas. Some of the younger guys like Shaun Lewis and Joe Mitchell look up to me, and I try to be a good guy for them. If they ever need anything, need help learning any plays, I’m always there. They both have my number.”
Priority No. 1 is returning from Louisiana with a 5-0 record. Thomas was a first-year freshman (he did not play in the game) when Oklahoma State traveled to face Troy (a Sun Belt Conference opponent like the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns) in a nationally televised road game three years ago. The Cowboys were embarrassed 41-23 by the Trojans.
“It was one of the worst road trips ever. I didn’t like it one bit,” said Thomas. “Everybody thought I was Dantrell Savage (because we both wore No. 22), and they let me have it. The fans were real close to the bench and they were in my ear all game. They were hitting me with the worst of it, and then we lost on top of it.”
Thomas wants to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself Friday night and would like to one day look back on his first start on the road with a sense of accomplishment.