The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

December 5, 2010

Thomas pivotal in WVU's turnaround

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas has been full of surprises this season.

Whether it was finishing second on the team in tackles (68), delivering a powerful, season-changing speech to his teammates or recovering a fumble to set up a touchdown in his last game at Milan Puskar Center, Thomas has delivered on a standout final season.

But he might have saved his best surprise for last.

As the seniors were readying to be announced Saturday, prior to the Mountaineers’ 35-14 win over Rutgers that earned the team a share of the Big East title, Thomas did a quick wardrobe change.

He quickly slipped on another jersey.

Then his name was called.

However, when No. 45 was called, No. 41 came out of the tunnel.

Holy switcheroo, Batman! That number belongs to Ricky Kovatch.

There was a reason.

No. 41 was the number Thomas’ father wore at WVU during his career as a Mountaineer.

“That was his Carquest Bowl jersey,” Thomas said. “I probably didn’t know I still had it. I had it down in Fort Lauderdale. I asked my mom to bring it up and she did. I put it on in the tunnel and ran out. I bet everybody was like, ‘Who is that No. 41?’

“But my dad probably knew exactly what it was when I stepped out of the tunnel. I was just paying respect to everything he did during his career here.

“You guys might not know it, but my dad didn’t get a chance to play in his last game. His senior game.

“And I wanted to bring him out with me. And now he got a chance to see his jersey grace that field one last time.”

No. 45 has been just as spectacular, enough to make a dad proud.

But it might have been a speech he gave after WVU lost to UConn 16-13 to fall to 1-2 in the Big East that turned the season around.

He didn’t seem to take it as a big deal, just doing what a senior is supposed to do.

It came in a team meeting, shortly after the Connecticut loss, a loss that could have spiraled the team into disarray and ruined the potential for a big season — his senior season.

“I just told the guys how I felt about it,” Thomas said. “I showed them up on the banner wall that teams have (won the Big East title) at 5-2 before. And we got it turned around. I knew we could. The guys know we were better than UConn. They knew we were better than Syracuse (another loss). They rallied around me and the rest of the seniors and we got the job done.”

Thomas’ heartfelt speech was a little more than that.

It meant a lot to his teammates.

He talked about the past.

“I could see in his eyes he was hurt,” sack specialist Bruce Irvin said. “He was here in 2007 when we had a chance to go to the BCS national championship game and Pitt came in here and won. He had to look into those seniors’ eyes who were leaving. We didn’t want our seniors to leave like that.”

Tavon Austin said, “When J.T. Thomas talks, people listen.”

And the Mountaineers did. They reeled off four straight wins to claim their share of the crown and maybe more, pending the outcome of the Connecticut-South Florida game Saturday night.

Even the seniors were impressed.

“The words that he said, they brought you in,” defensive lineman Chris Neild said. “I know it hit home with me and with a lot of other people. And we played a lot better because of it.”

Thomas said he felt it was incumbent upon him to speak.

“Definitely, because the young guys might not have seen it done before,” Thomas said. “But I’ve been around before. I know that crazier things have happened. I knew we could still win it. And here we are.”

No matter what jersey he is in, Thomas has continued to surprise.

And lead.

And because he spoke, the Mountaineers turned their season around.

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