In Rutgers’ 14-35 loss to Michigan last week in Ann Arbor, the chinks in the Scarlet Knights’ armor were on full display. Quarterback Gio Rescigno barely cracked 100 yards passing (he finished with 101), their “dominant” rushing attack was held to 94 total yards (receiver/returner Janarion Grant had 71 yards on five carries) and defensive front seven was demolished for 334 total rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Michigan’s Top 40 rushing offense was led by junior running back Karan Higdon (18 carries, 158 yards, two touchdowns) and Senior running back Ty Isaac (14 carries, 109 yards, two touchdowns).
With a rushing defense ranked 84th in the NCAA, Rutgers has given up an average of 181 rushing yards per game along with 10 touchdowns this season. For a rebuilding Big 10 team, not being able to stop the run is a major leak in the boat. Dominant running is a major staple of the conference, and if Rutgers ever hopes to move past the overbearing shadows of Wisconsin (Jonathan Taylor), Penn State (Saquan Barkley) and the like, they need increased depth in the front seven.
Enter Matthew Thomas.
In the past, I’ve written pieces about Rutgers 2018 recruits that possess incredible position flexibility (Raiqwon O’Neal, Christian Izien). But if you were to determine what exact position Thomas would play for the Scarlet Knights, your head would be spinning for hours.
According to NJ.com, Thomas plays defensive end, H-back and tight end for the Midwood High School Hornets. His athletic ceiling is practically non-existent, as the 6-4, 220-pounder has shown on the high school gridiron that he can succeed anywhere on the field. As a tight end/H-back, Thomas is quick on his feet, being able to evade would-be tacklers for extra yardage when necessary. He’s also shown tremendous toughness and strength when carrying the ball in open space and isn’t afraid to take a hit or throw a stiff arm.
One of Thomas’ most underrated skills is his run-blocking. In today’s modern football landscape, tight-ends have evolved into a bigger, more agile pass-catcher, which in turn often reduces their ability to block downfield against defensive ends and linebackers. Thomas, however, has not let that part of his game faze out. On game tape, Thomas’ downfield blocking has helped open massive holes for his running backs. In a conference so focused on the run game, Thomas could prove to be an invaluable asset to Rutgers’ offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s game plan.
On the defensive side of the ball, Thomas has demonstrated a knack for sniffing out anyone that has the unfortunate pleasure of carrying the ball. With an explosive first step and hands so fast you’ll miss them if you blink, Thomas is a play-making machine. He dominates either side of the line, producing sacks and tackles for loss on a consistent basis. He also has a tendency for causing turnovers, like a defensive end-version of Charles “Peanut” Tillman.
Most importantly, Thomas has shown he possesses a strong character. According to his personal statement on NCAA Sports.org, Thomas is not only a determined football player but a determined student as well:
“Most youth my age are concerned with having fun, but I am fully devoted to improving myself not only as an athlete, but as a student. [My] work ethic on the field is just as intense in the classroom as I continue to improve my academic standing.”
With a bright future both on the field and in the classroom, Thomas has proven to be an exceptional young man and a valuable addition to head coach Chris Ash’s system, regardless of where he’s placed.