Manny Diaz knew it in an instant.
Diaz immediately recognized that Jeff Thomas was different, and defending him was going to require a different approach.
It was 2017 and Diaz, then the University of Miami’s defensive coordinator, was watching Thomas, the school’s prized freshman receiver, buzz through the secondary with stock-car speed and agility.
“You could definitely see he had a different ability; they call it blowing the top off the coverage,’’ Diaz, now Miami’s head coach, said in a recent telephone interview. “And instantly all of our guys on defense just knew that you had to cover Jeff differently than you had to cover some of our other wide receivers.’’
Diaz’s message to his defensive backs was a simple one.
“You’d better get hands on him, because if you get into a race with him, you may come in second place,’’ he said.
Thomas has been consistently winning races on the football field since his freshman season at East St. Louis (Ill.) High, where he developed into an All-American. In three seasons in Coral Gables, he collected 83 passes for 1,316 yards and 8 touchdowns in 34 games.
His next stop is Foxborough after the Patriots signed the 5-foot-10-inch, 174-pounder as an undrafted free agent last month.
Thomas is part of a large pool of candidates who will try to earn a spot in New England’s receiver rotation while also hoping to carve out a role on special teams.
While Thomas’s high school and college films are loaded with game-changing moments and lightning-bolt highlights, his résumé also paints a picture of a player who has become a lightning rod of controversy because of concerns about his reliability as a teammate.
Thomas was a subject in the Fox documentary “89 Blocks,” which chronicled East St. Louis’s state championship season in 2016. The film captures Thomas at his best (a slew of acrobatic catches) and worst (a string of missed practices and academic deficiencies that led to a one-game suspension).
As hard as it was for defenders to catch Thomas on the field, he was equally elusive when teammates and coaches attempted to reach him off it. It comes to a head when Thomas acknowledges and apologizes for four seasons of bad behavior and vows to change after teammates vote to keep him on the team.
Thomas rewards their faith with stellar playoff performances, helping to deliver a title before announcing his decision to head to Miami.
It was more of the same in South Florida, where his behavior continued to be both dazzling and dazing. There were highlights aplenty but many lowlights as well. Thomas was suspended multiple times for undisclosed rule violations and was dismissed from the team by then-head coach Mark Richt in November 2018.
After flirting with a transfer to Illinois, Thomas ultimately stayed in Miami and was reinstated by Diaz.
“Everyone showed me love like I had never left," Thomas told reporters upon his return. “I’m responding really well. I’m taking coaching every day, fixing my mistakes on and off the field.’’
Thomas’s production dipped in 2019, with just 379 receiving yards in 10 games and he was suspended for a pair of games.
Asked what Thomas needed to work on to be successful at the next level, Diaz pointed to consistency “in all aspects of his life.’’
Diaz, who said Thomas “isn’t afraid of hard work,’’ believes landing in the Patriots’ established, structured environment could help Thomas stay focused on his profession.
“I think there’s no doubt that he [will] benefit in New England; I think he’d be a great match,’’ said Diaz. “I think Jeff wants structure, he wants discipline. He’s aware that there’s consequences to actions, and again that’s why New England can be a great fit for him.’’
If Thomas can knuckle down and thrive as a professional, the Patriots may have found their latest undrafted gem. His combination of initial quickness, acceleration, hands, and body control could make him an immediate big-play threat.
An area of development where Thomas has really improved has been route running. In high school, he was able to dominate with raw speed and athleticism. His college tape shows a player who executed smooth double moves and more precise cuts before flashing his ridiculous downfield speed.
“A word would be ‘explosive,’ ” Diaz said. “I think Jeff’s got explosive speed, ability as a receiver, and then potentially in the return game.
“And I think everybody knows that explosive plays correlate very closely with winning games. So, if you can find a guy like that who can make something, turn a short play into a long play, those guys always add value.’’
As a returner, Thomas’s suddenness and vision allowed him to avoid tacklers and follow his blockers to produce field-flipping plays.
“Jeff has a knack of putting his foot in the ground, making a cut, and making some big plays happen in the kick game,’’ said Diaz. “He returned kickoffs and punts both for us in his career in Miami, and has made impact plays during both.’’