No matter what happens this season, 2017 Wesley Chapel Quarterback Jacob Thomas has learned his lesson and knows that this game is sometimes not as hard as it is made out to be–even if you’re playing one of the most complicated positions in all of sports to play.
In 2015, Thomas (6′-4″/185-pounds) completed 146 of his 335 passes for a completion rate of just 44%-percent, but finished with 1,825 yards, 17td’s-13int’s plus 48carries for 131 yards-3td’s rushing. That was good for a very respectable 1,956 yards & 20td’s given the rocky start he and his squad experienced. By comparison the year before, Austin Sessums–now at Tampa Catholic and finalist for 3A Player of the Year this past season–completed only 46-percent of his passes for 933 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
Wesley Chapel is 7-33 the past four seasons and they technically had a winning season in 2011, but that was by nature of a win versus Land O’Lakes by forfeit. The Wildcats actually finished 5-5 that season. If you want to find their last winning season outright, you’d have to go all the way back to 2004 when they were 7-3. To put that into perspective, Thomas along with everybody else on that roster were either in kindergarten or pre-school since Chapel has experienced a 7-win season or better.
There are reasons to be hopeful that the turnaround begins sooner rather than later, however. Following Tico Hernandez’s departure after the 2015 season, Anthony Egan is the new man over at Chapel, now. Egan comes from River Ridge where he coached an offensive line that helped the Royal Knights set rushing records throughout the county and state. Although Thomas is busy playing baseball for the ‘Cats at the moment, you better believe that he and Egan have become acquainted with each other and that spring ball will bring some excitement.
“I like him a lot,” said Thomas. “With baseball–I haven’t been able to go to any workouts this offseason, but I talk to him when I see him in the hallways at school–he takes his time to come over and talk. He’s a good guy. From day one Coach Egan had a meeting with us and set the tone that he’s there to do the same thing we’re there to do–and that’s win football games. I think he has the best interests of the players and will do everything he can to help us and teach us how to win.”
Thomas’–and the ‘Cats first three weeks of the season as a whole–were three weeks they’d rather forget, so us bringing it up won’t help that obviously. In his first three games of the season, Thomas went 24-of-70, 205 yards, with just one touchdown and six interceptions. The team was outscored 114-10 by Land O’Lakes, rivals Wiregrass Ranch and county-stalwarts Pasco. Although their game versus Land O’Lakes was close the opening week, the Wildcats were beaten by a combined score of 100-3.
But even Thomas acknowledged those drubbings helped him and his teammates grow and shed those training wheels. Following that tumultuous start, Thomas and the Wesley Chapel offense started to get things going. In their last seven games, Thomas totaled 1,620 yards, 16 touchdowns and 7 int’s while the team averaged 20 points per game for the rest of season. In six of his last seven games, Thomas went for 200+ yards including a 25-of-45, 304-yard, 4td-2int game versus Zephyrhills.
“I felt–especially as the weeks progressed–that, not only did myself, but our whole offense was starting to gel as the season went on. I know the first three weeks–especially weeks two and three–we got our head kicked-in pretty good and then we started seeing some success, started moving the ball and then started scoring touchdowns. That created that sense of confidence we needed throughout the whole team.”
The ‘Cats were basically kittens in terms of age and experience last season, which isn’t an indictment on their toughness, because–let’s face it–kittens can actually leave damage when they’re ticked-off, but it’s human nature to experience a little deer-in-the-headlights moment when the lights come on and it’s no longer a Tuesday night at the summer 7-on-7 league. His candidness about the topic is refreshing–especially since he used the “i”-word to poignantly describe the situation at-hand.
“We came out in the first couple weeks–we had Wiregrass in week two which is a big rivalry game, then Pasco–and I think there was almost an intimidation factor. We were a young team last year and a lot of guys had not even played a varsity game at that point. We played Ridgewood week four and put up a good game even though we lost, but things started clicking after that–then practices started to get more competitive and it just kept building.”
Sometimes you can point to the EXACT moment that the light comes on. Thomas’ “ah-HA!” moment–according to him–didn’t come overnight, but he definitely thinks he knows where to trace it.
“Like I said, in myself–I felt as the weeks progressed that the games were starting slow down and could pick things apart, make confident throws and just put the ball where it needed to be. It just carried throughout the whole team once those things took place and it didn’t show on our record, but we were playing every team tough besides those week two and three games and felt like we had shots at winning games.”
The Wildcats lost three games by a touchdown or less including a pair of five-point losses to Fivay and Hudson that they felt like were firmly there for the taking–and they simply couldn’t finish the job. Using their youth as a reason for not getting said job done was justifiable, but this season that’s not going to be the case according to Thomas. Although mistakes might be made because of transitioning head coaches and scheme, their inexperience won’t be the reason why. Thomas knows this ‘Cats team was better than their record indicated last season, and so does everyone else on the team.
“I don’t think (the excuse of being young) should be there this season. There’s a lot of guys coming back this season that know what needs to be done and I’m hoping that builds even more confidence coming into spring ball. Getting in the weight room with the new coach and learning the new system and buying into that system as well should carry us throughout it–but I definitely think we should have went 5-5 last year and you can ask anyone around here on our team and they’ll tell you the same thing. It just comes down to those last 3-3:30 minutes and we’re up by two or something like that and then something doesn’t go our way–the other team converts–and next thing we know we’re out of time.”
Being a good leader means sometimes you’ve got to carry the burden of failure with as much class as you carry the joy of success. Even when the easy thing to do is just go completely mental on someone or some foreign object like a water cooler–it’s not the “best practice” to go about applying. In a moment of self-reflection and honest assessment about he handled some of the adverse situations during the course of last season, Thomas knows that the stats are nice–in theory–but he’s WAYYYY more worried about being respectful and encouraging when trying to get everyone on the same page.
“There was nothing much I could do about them (the drops) physically, I just had to continue to do what I had to do and put the ball in a position to be caught. Sometimes I would show a little bit of frustration, which I kind of wish I didn’t–because that’s not going to help the situation much either, but I would just tell my wide receivers after they would come up and tell me ‘my bad, my bad’—I would just say to them keep running your routes and do what you have to do. It will come. Of course I wish I didn’t have all those drops for stats purposes, but a pass-is-a-pass. It takes two people to make the play.”
Well, you did have thirteen interceptions last season, right Jacob? Knowing how tough he is on his own self, the follow-up nearly asked itself because of his brutal honesty throughout the conversation. But just like his mantra throughout, once the ball started rolling–losses be-damned–it was about confidence. He’s done this before and the physical talent was already there.
“It’s tough to watch sometimes–(speaking of his film sessions)–and those mistakes were getting corrected with the progression of confidence because the beginning of the season, I was almost throwing the ball just to throw it–I had to buckle down and said to myself that I’ve got to slow all this down and make the progressions I need to make without rushing and deliver a confident ball. That came with time and it helped me pick up the momentum as the season progressed and it clearly helped our offense a lot more.”
With such a rocky start, Thomas knows the recruiting process isn’t going to sit around and wait for him to be a coveted possession for multiple schools. To counteract that and be proactive, Thomas reached out to a rather “dynastic” program–and he just might end up getting better shots at a national title than a prospect heading off to the SEC or ACC or Big-Ten. The juice wasn’t there at the start of the season for obvious reasons, but the Bison were just a phone call away and Thomas now has some “extra” motivation to keep working.
“There hasn’t been much, but throughout the season I had a couple of Jucos and small-schools text to say they were an option—but recently I spoke with North Dakota State and their staff. I called them and talked to them for a little bit and they in-turn called my school and started asking the coaches about me. They said they liked me and that I was on their board and I want to get up to their camp this summer. The location doesn’t really bother me, because at this point, I don’t care where it is–I just want to play ball.”