ATHENS — Caleb King is one of just two healthy running backs on Georgia’s roster, and he hopes to use the opportunity to secure a spot atop Georgia’s depth chart now that Knowshon Moreno is headed to the NFL. But when asked about his expectations for the spring, King couldn’t help but take the spotlight off his own game for a moment.
“I’m going to tell you, watch out for Carlton,” King said. “Carlton Thomas is going to be something special.”
When Georgia’s pre-spring depth chart was released a week ago, Brandon Boykin’s name was listed as the top contender for the vacant role of kick returner. But when fellow freshman defender and special-team stalwart Nick Williams was asked about the position battle, he couldn’t resist gushing about someone other than Boykin.
“I’ll tell you the guy to watch is Carlton Thomas,” Williams said. “He’s got blazing speed, and he’ll hit the hole, wide open. He did that on scout team last year.”
Around Georgia’s locker room, it’s as if Thomas had his own personal team of publicists — but it’s praise he has earned on the practice field during his first season with the Bulldogs in 2008.
At just 5-foot-7, most of Thomas’ teammates tower over him, and his stature makes it easy for him to fly under the radar. But while critics are quick apply labels like “change-of-pace back,” the players who watch him in practice every day know better — and they’re more than happy to tout Thomas’ skills to anyone who will listen.
“It makes me feel pretty good to know that I’m not just all out of the picture,” Thomas said. “Somebody’s thinking about me, that I can do something. So that’s extra motivation right there to not just prove people wrong, but also the people who are saying good things about me, make them look good and prove them right.”
Thomas insists he doesn’t go to work with a chip on his shoulder, but he has certainly heard the talk that he isn’t big enough or strong enough to handle the workload of a full-time running back in the SEC.
To see Thomas in street clothes, he certainly wouldn’t pass for an SEC tailback, but he thrives on having people underestimate him.
“Everybody thinks with his size, he won’t really pound it inside, but Carlton, he’s got heart,” King said. “He’s going to surprise people with his inside game. People are going to think he’ll bounce out all the time, but he’ll put his nose in the middle and get the hard yards.”
By his senior season in high school, Thomas wasn’t sneaking up on too many opponents, but it didn’t matter. They still couldn’t stop him.
The Frostproof (Fla.) High School product racked up 2,386 yards on the ground and 25 touchdowns in his senior year and quickly grabbed the attention of colleges across the country. He was an Under Armour High School All-American and was ranked as the No. 8 running back in the country by ESPN.
His skills extended beyond simply taking handoffs and darting past defenders, too. He was a four-year letter winner in track and three years in basketball. On the gridiron, he excelled on special teams, and this year, he could land a job returning both kicks and punts for Georgia this year, head coach Mark Richt said. And while Thomas is happy to tout his aggressive running style, he’s also quick to mention his flair for grabbing a few passes out of the backfield, too.
“Oh yeah, I know I’ve got some good hands,” he said.
With Richard Samuel and Dontavius Jackson shelved for the spring with injuries, Thomas figures to get plenty of looks and a hefty workload during the next few weeks.
The hope is that he’ll impress coaches this spring as much as he has impressed his teammates during the past year. Whether that will be enough to forever shed the preconceived notions his size tends to create remains to be seen, but the labels don’t mean much to Thomas anyway. What matters is opportunity.
“You need to take advantage of all your opportunities,” Thomas said. “It’s big. The light’s on me and Caleb, and as it shines, you know you’re going to be looked at and you’ve got to execute. I want to be that every-down back. That’s what I came here to be.”