Thomas has bombed in, not out, igniting an explosion of Terp wins

September 11, 1990|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

COLLEGE PARK -- He has streaked into Maryland's football firmament like a meteor, leaving unanswered a single question. What's Gene Thomas going to do for an encore?

After grabbing passes from Scott Zolak and running like a thief for two game-winning touchdowns, does Thomas have anything special in mind for Clemson, which will meet the Terps Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore?

"Score a little earlier, maybe," Thomas said, a smile playing on his lips.

The junior college transfer has, in fact, kept everyone on the edge of his seat. His 51-yard touchdown with 1:01 remaining broke a 13-13 tie and gave Maryland a 20-13 win over Virginia Tech in the opener.

His 59-yard scoring catch with less than three minutes left brought the Terps from behind for a 14-10 triumph over West Virginia Saturday.

"I hoped to make an impact eventually," Thomas said. "I didn't think it would be this quick."

Thomas was a gift to Maryland from Rockville High by way of Montgomery College in Rockville. His high school grades were fine, but his SAT scores were low.

"We told him if he went to Montgomery first, we'd have a scholarship waiting for him," said Maryland assistant coach Kurt Van Valkenburgh, who recruited Thomas. "We knew his capabilities."

They were known throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference, as well. Before Thomas set foot on campus, he was named to the ACC preseason second team.

Thomas was something special last year for Montgomery, catching 58 passes for 1,036 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was the Central Athletic Conference Player of the Year and second-team junior college All-America.

"I saw him in the conference all-star game last year," said receivers coach Rod Sharpless. "The quarterback wasn't that good, underthrowing receivers, but Gene ran good routes and you could see his ability to go up."

What sets Thomas apart is not just his 4.4-second speed for 40 yards, but his acceleration.

"He has that tremendous burst," running backs coach Tony Whittlesey said. "He has the ability to accelerate immediately."

Although Joe Krivak said before Thomas' second TD catch that "he's going to do some more good things here," the coach feels the 6-foot, 180-pound junior has by no means mastered the offense.

"He needs to make adjustments in certain coverages," Krivak said. "Some he's not sure of. And he has to be more disciplined in his running. But that will come from playing. The more he plays, the better he'll get."

Krivak made a deal with Thomas. If the receiver learns all his football assignments and is academically up to snuff, he will be allowed to skip spring practice in favor of baseball.

A centerfielder, Thomas was selected by the San Francisco Giants on the 20th round of the 1989 draft after his freshman year at Montgomery. He had no qualms about spurning a $2,000 bonus to return to school. He batted .338 last spring and stole 38 bases for Montgomery.

"If he gets our system down, we won't really need him in the spring," Van Valkenburgh said. "He has a great talent in baseball, too, and we wouldn't want to take those opportunities away from him.

"He can catch the ball and he has speed. The great ones you don't have to spend much time with. It's the on-edge guys you've got to coach every single second."

Football or baseball -- which is Thomas' favorite?

"Football right now," he said. "Maybe in the spring it will be baseball."

Maryland officials say about 8,000 tickets are unsold for the Clemson game. For ticket information, call 1-800-462-TERP.

Zolak can become the first Terp to pass for 300-plus yards in three straight games Saturday . . . Fullback Frank Wycheck leads the ACC with 19 catches . . . Zolak may be the main show, but tailback Troy Jackson has 146 yards rushing on 37 carries . . . Linebacker Glenn Page, the team's leading tackler last year with 111, already has 28 . . . No. 25 West Virginia is the first nationally ranked team the Terps have beaten since they dismantled No. 20 Clemson, 41-23, in 1984 . . . They tied No. 13 Penn State last year and No. 15 Clemson in 1986.

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