Fresno State secondary coach Jordan Peterson helped oversee Phillip Thomas’ transition to the Bulldogs’ new 3-4 defense last season, so he has a good idea about how quickly Thomas learns and his strengths and weaknesses on the back end. He discussed the Redskins’ fourth-round pick in a phone conversation this week.
Peterson lauded Thomas’ ability not only to disguise coverages but also his understanding of what such disguises attempt to accomplish. That should significantly help him on the Redskins’ defense, considering coordinator Jim Haslett loves to try to disguise coverages. His experience playing in the box and deep is exactly the interchangeability coach Mike Shanahan desires from his safeties. Also, Thomas’ ability to learn quickly will be his greatest asset in his attempt to immediately earn playing time.
Q: Redskins coach Mike Shanahan mentioned Phillip at Fresno St. ran some similar concepts as the Redskins run. How do you see him transitioning to the pros given what you guys ran?
JP: “Phillip is one of the most instinctual football players you could ever ask for as a coach. He, obviously, before we got there, they ran a 4-3. So he’s been in multiple schemes. We now run a 3-4 odd-front team. So he has been exposed to quite a different array of schemes and coverages and run fits. That being said, we generally, for the college level, have a pretty complex defense. He was one of the guys it just kind of came natural to. You just tell him one time, and he’ll say: ‘Oh, so you mean this?’ And he’d get it right away. So he actually became another coach on the field. I’d say that’s one of his biggest assets. He understands the game of football.”
Q: How did you guys use him? His YouTube highlights show everything from blitzing out of the slot to playing halves to center field.
JP: “We tried to put him around the football as much as possible because we know that when you have a player like that on defense, you’ve got to put him in a position to do what he does best, and that’s create takeaways. So you’re right. We did put him in a lot of scenarios, whether it was playing in a half with some vision. With his great ball skills, he would go up and get it any time. At the same time, he’s big enough, strong enough to where coming off the edge he could create some big time havoc in the backfield, whether it be on quarterback on a play-action pass or if he’s got to really stick your foot in the ground in the backfield to make a tackle for loss in the run game. So we were able to put him in the box. If we needed him in run support, we did it. If we had a team that was a big pass-heavy team, we tried to put him in a position that he could make some plays based on the offense’s tendencies.
Q: So when you consider his eight interceptions last season, is there anything you look at as a particular area of growth that enabled him to create those takeaways?
JP: “I think how well he understood our scheme. With our disguise packages, he knew what the quarterback was seeing pre-snap. And so he kind of understood, ‘Hey, if I show the quarterback this look, he’s going to throw this ball.’ By doing that, he would pretty much bait the quarterback into the bad throw. And that comes with him understanding how the whole scheme works, how everybody being in sync with one another gives the quarterback the wrong read. And he knew that, and he took advantage of it.”
Q: And he basically picked that up in one offseason?
JP: “Yeah. We just had him for the spring—we don’t really deal with our guys much in the summer—and fall camp. It was one of those things where you would tell, ‘Hey, this is why we’re doing it,’ and he would cling onto it. He would learn it really quick.”
“He definitely has the mentality that he wants to come in and make an impact early. Obviously he knows he’s got to come in and compete his butt off, just like anywhere, to earn a spot. That being said, I think he’s going to go into it with the right mentality and the right mindset to go in there and help them any way he can. I know he’s a guy that can definitely make an impact on special teams early on. And because he does have a better understanding of the game from a defensive standpoint, he will be able to catch on early, and hopefully he’ll be able to make an impact on defense early on.”
Q: So he played special teams for you guys?
JP: “Only punt [coverage]. That wasn’t because he couldn’t do it. That was because we were trying to get him off the field a little bit.”
Q: If he has a weakness, what is it? Is there any particular area you guys tried to bring him along in?
JP: “It wasn’t necessarily a fault of his, but some of our schemes took time to develop trust in the technique we were teaching. Obviously, some of the techniques we teach you can’t do in the NFL in the secondary with playing hands-on beyond 5 yards. And so there’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve in that regard. But that was probably the main thing—this is what we’re teaching, you’ve got to trust the scheme. Trust your ability and your strength and be able to use that at the college level. Like I said, there will be some adjustment period with specific techniques, but that was the main thing. I think you’re going to run into that anywhere whenever you have a new staff come in and a new scheme.
Q: So your staff coached your defensive backs to play with more hands than they were used to?
JP: “That was our big deal. We’re a big pressure team, so any time we can play hands-on and disrupt timing and those kinds of things, we would try to do that.”
Q: Does he have the speed to be able to range playing as a single high safety? Or would he thrive more in a Cover-2?
JP: “I think because he’s pretty instinctual, he can play that single high. I do think that he made quite a few plays being in two-high—because we do mix up whether we play closed middle or open middle looks. But he made plays in both regards, and it wasn’t like he was always the high hole. Sometimes, depending on the blitz direction, he’d roll down, and that kind of thing. As you saw, sometimes he was the high hole. Sometimes he was in man. Sometimes we were playing Cover-2, and he was able to run a little bit more and play with vision. I think he’s got that ability.”
Q: What did you make of him not being drafted until the fourth round, especially considering he was a consensus All-American?
JP: “I was actually kind of surprised that he slipped that far. I think maybe because he didn’t run as well as he thought he would, I think that might have played into it. But at the same time, he’s plays a whole lot faster when he’s got the pads on than a lot of guys. A lot of guys slow down when they put the pads on, I think he gets even faster.”
Q: Is that because of the instincts?
JP: “A big time part of it is because he’s so instinctual. When you get him out on the field, I think the tape speaks for itself. When you compare him to other guys, he definitely puts it on film.”
“His instincts will at least put him in position to go learn it in a hurry. For rookies, a lot of times that’s what stops them from getting on the field. They can’t catch on to the scheme fast enough. Now that’s going to be his full-time job and he doesn’t have to worry about going to school or anything like that anymore, I think he’s going to be that much further ahead.”