When Michael Thomas was the quarterback at Houston's Nimitz High, his Cougars lost to rival Stratford in 2006 and '07. But Thomas became such a big fan of the Spartans' signal caller, Andrew Luck, that he followed him to college. "Seeing Andrew play and knowing the type of guy he was and the reason he was going to Stanford—to help turn the program around—that was something I wanted to be a part of," says Thomas.
In Palo Alto, Thomas has been a factor in two turnarounds: of the Cardinal (1--11 two seasons before Thomas and Luck arrived, it went a school-record 12--1 last year) and of its once hapless defensive backfield. After playing receiver for two weeks in his freshman year, Thomas was moved to the secondary, where he and his fellow DBs regularly absorbed abuse from fans and media. "We heard everything from 'You're too slow and too unathletic' to 'You guys flat out don't know how to play football,' " says Thomas, now a free safety. Yet under coordinator Vic Fangio (who followed last year's coach, Jim Harbaugh, to the 49ers) and secondary coach Derek Mason (now also co--defensive coordinator under new coach David Shaw), the secondary was Stanford's most improved unit last year and a big reason why the defense morphed from eighth in the Pac-10 in points allowed (26.5 per game) in 2009 to 10th in the nation (17.4) in '10.
The difference? "The coaches believed in us, broke everything down for us and taught us the importance of communication," says Thomas, whose experience as a QB has been invaluable. "He has to process about 10 things in a matter of six seconds," says Mason. "If he sees something wrong, he communicates it. If a team is trying to push tempo, he calms guys down. That's a characteristic of a great quarterback: calm under pressure."
That also describes Luck, the Heisman runner-up who turned down millions as the NFL's presumptive No. 1 draft pick. "Ever since Andrew made the decision to stay, guys have rallied around him," says Thomas. "I've never seen guys work as hard as they are working now. We all feel like last year was just a taste of what we can do, and now we want more."
3 San Jose State
10 at Duke
17 at Arizona
15 at Washington St.
29 at USC
5 at Oregon State
26 Notre Dame
He and LT Jonathan Martin, the O-line's only two returnees, were key to the Cardinal's giving up just six sacks in 2010.
The early Heisman Trophy favorite has the highest winning percentage (.800) among QBs in school history.
Despite missing the first two games, he finished 2010 as the team's leader in tackles (84).
Coach David Shaw (1st year)
2010 Record 12--1 (8--1 in Pac-10)
Final AP Rank 4
Returning Starters 11
Offense 5, Defense 6
HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES (THOMAS)
Now defending passes instead of throwing them, the hard-hitting Thomas had one interception and helped transform a maligned secondary into a strength.
JC RIDLEY/CAL SPORT MEDIA (SKOV)