On the outside, Matt Thomas was known for burning up the field as the Penn football team's No. 2 tailback and kick returner in the 1999 season. On the inside, though, the sophomore was getting burned out by the game he had been playing for nine years. Now, as the Quakers gear up for the 2000 campaign, a freshman will wear the No. 21 jersey that Thomas gave back to the team in mid-April after a winter and spring of wrestling with the decision to quit. "I just really didn't feel the desire to [play football] anymore," Thomas said. "It was hard for me to get motivated to put the pads on and go out three hours every day." He also cited conflicts with members of the coaching staff as an added incentive to leave the team. However, Thomas' dwindling desire and motivation were not apparent in his play during his sophomore year. As the backup tailback to Penn starter Kris Ryan, who led the Ivy League in rushing last season with 1,197 yards, Thomas was a key player in the Quakers' offense. His number of carries and total yardage per game, while small compared to Ryan's numbers, stayed steady and considerable throughout the season. By season's end, Thomas had amassed 236 yards on 61 carries, which included two touchdown runs, for an average of 3.3 yards per carry. And as a kickoff returner, Thomas averaged a dependable 20.8 yards on 16 returns, claiming the special teams' longest return of 55 yards. Thomas matured as a football player during his sophomore year. Coming into 1999 having only one varsity carry to his name -- a 5-yard run against Yale in 1998 -- he grew into a strong backup for Ryan. "We will miss [Thomas'] experience," Penn coach Al Bagnoli said last week in a question-and-answer session during preseason camp. Thomas said that he, too, will miss playing football, but that the free time he has gained has given him more opportunities than the game can provide. "There's a lot of perks that come with playing football," he said. "[But] if I had a choice to go back, I probably wouldn't because I can use an extra 25 hours a week." Thomas now plans to use the extra time to continue his work study job through the fall -- which he couldn't do as a football player -- as well as intern with MCA Records. The void left by Thomas may be difficult to fill for the Quakers, who are already smarting from the temporary loss of Kris Ryan to an ankle sprain. With Ryan potentially out for three weeks until the Ivy League opener against Dartmouth, Penn is now left with only a pair of go-to backs to use in the Red and Blue's two upcoming preseason games. Senior Mike Verille and sophomore Todd Okolovitch should see most of the action out of the backfield. Not only will the Quakers have to deal with these personnel shortcomings, but they will also have to find someone to replace Thomas' explosive quickness through the line. Thomas was a track standout in high school as well as a football star, and he brought to the college gridiron a burst of speed when he touched the ball that almost always guaranteed positive yardage. Bagnoli often said last season that the 5'8", 180-pound Thomas "hit the hole at 100 miles per hour" when he carried, quickly finding the daylight in the line and squeezing through. This was a much-needed contrast to Ryan's rumbling runs over defenders with his 6'0", 235-pound frame. After the Quakers' 17-6 win over Dartmouth in last year's Ivy League season opener, when Ryan and Thomas rushed for 99 and 43 yards, respectively, Big Green coach John Lyons said, "It's a nice change-up they have with them." It looks as if the Thomas-less Red and Blue will have to find another way to change things up on opposing defenses this seasonComments powered by Disqus
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