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By LARRY VAUGHT
He was considered a “tackling machine” at Godby High School in Tallahassee, Fla., when he ranked sixth in the state with 143 tackles as a junior and followed that with 142 stops as a senior to earn him a spot among the nation’s top 40 high school linebackers in several recruiting rankings, including ESPN.
However, Kadeem “Pancho” Thomas says there is no big secret to why he made so many plays and hopes to do the same at Kentucky. “That is the way I am. You can’t let it come to you. You have to go get it. I am not fast at all. I just have a nose for the ball. I love contact. I love to be there every time. I like to hit,” said the UK freshman linebacker.
Here’s what else he had to say at the team’s recent media day (freshmen are off limits to the media now until after UK plays at Louisville Sept. 2).
Question: How is your health? Are you back to 100 percent after some issues during the summer?
Thomas: “I am good. I strained my hamstring earlier this summer, but it was nothing major. I was back in about two weeks and I am good now. I am back running. It was nothing that really set me back.”
Question: What has the summer in Lexington been like for you?
Thomas: “It was very different than back home in Florida. The weather is different. I just came in and the weight program was different than what I was used to. I was used to working, but this is different, harder. (Strength) Coach (Rock) Oliver is not always fun. He is no joke when it is time to work.”
Question: Have academics always been a big part of your life/family?
Thomas: “My mom wouldn’t let us do anything until our homework was done. You couldn’t go outside without doing your homework first. She would not even let us play some games without doing our homework. There were times I didn’t get to play in Pop Warner (football) growing up. I realized if I wanted to play ball, I had to get my work done. She made sure of that. I appreciate that a lot more now. I know what I have to do now to be successful.”
Question: How good is your brother, a highly-touted running back who has made his verbal commitment to UK?
Thomas: “He is pretty good. I don’t want to speak too highly of him, but he’s pretty good.”
Question: Did you have a lot of one-on-one battles with him growing up?
Thomas: “Yes we did. We go back and forth all the time in practice. I would get him, he would get me. Sometimes I would be slacking and he would try to run me over like, ‘I am here. Wake up.’”
Question: Did it surprise you when he committed to Kentucky?
Thomas: “It really didn’t. He was always talking about it when we would just be sitting around the house and chillin’ and stuff. He called me up and one night and said he was ready to make his decision and I asked him where he was going. He said, ‘Kentucky.’ I didn’t believe him until I saw it all over Twitter.
“I didn’t pressure him. I just left that up to him. I wouldn’t want anyone to pressure me to go anywhere or somewhere I didn’t want to go. He was always talking to me about how I would feel and told him wherever he was happy, I would be happy for him. Even if I had to play against him at Florida or something, I would be happy. I told him, ‘Just know that I will try to take your head off.’”
Question: What is one thing UK fans probably don’t know about you that might surprise them?
Thomas: “Everything speaks for itself. What you see is what you get with me.”
Question: What do you think of freshman linebacker Khalid Henderson?
Thomas: “I think that we are going to do something, me and him. I am pretty excited to play next to him. Kentucky has had great linebackers here. If you want to be the best, you have to play for the best and (linebackers) coach (Chuck) Smith has had great success with his linebackers here. I know how good they have been.”
Question: Is your goal to play this year?
Thomas: “That is my goal. I am going to try my best in camp and whatever the coaches decide, that is what they decide and will be fine with me. But I would like to play.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky linebacker coach Chuck Smith on two of his freshmen players and also opening the season Sept. 2 at Louisville.
Question: Do true freshman Khalid Henderson or Kadeem Thomas have a chance to play this year in some role like Wesley Woodyard, Micah Johnson, Danny Trevathan and Braxton Kelley all did?
Smith: “Yes, but I think Henderson probably especially. Pancho (Thomas) I think is nursing some injuries, but I think Khalid has a chance. I have not got to see them much this summer, but just based on what I know and what I have heard through the strength coaches, he could have a chance.”
Question: What did you like about Henderson when he was being recruited?
Smith: “Just his explosiveness more than anything. His desire, his effort to play hard. Besides the fact that he has skills. He can run, he can strike. He has got great instincts. He has a chance to be a really good player.”
Question: How good offensively is Louisville going to be?
Smith: “They are a good football team, a very nice team. They have a lot of players back from last year. The quarterback is going to be even more experienced and he was pretty good last year. They are going to be a tough opening game for us.”
Question: Do you like opening with Louisville or do you prefer the years when it is the third game of the season?
Smith: “Honestly I don’t really care that much whether it is the first game or not. There will be a lot of hype around it being the first game, but both teams plenty of time to prepare. We will just have to wait and see.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Because he wanted to be able to focus on helping his team win a Florida state high school championship, Khalid Thomas decided there was no reason to keep looking for a college because of the way he felt about the University of Kentucky. The Tallahassee running back had a host of scholarship offers, including Ohio State, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Miami (Fla.).
“But I loved the coaching staff at Kentucky. It’s a group of good guys. I felt at home up there,” said Thomas.
One reason is that his older brother, Kadeem, will be a freshman linebacker at UK this season.
“I’m used to playing with him. I’m actually kind of happy that we’re going to be able to play again in college. He kept it real at ease with me, but he told me Kentucky was a place he was really enjoying even if he was a little homesick,” Thomas said. “Nobody at Kentucky tried to force me to make a decision and my family was the same way. My mother is kind of happy we are going to be together. She’s even talked about purchasing a Kentucky license plate. Everybody here was pretty happy with my decision.
Thomas says he grew up “loving and watching” football, in part because his dad “was a pretty good player” and in part because of the rivalry with his brother.
“We helped each other a lot. We would play until we could not play any more. We went back and forth a lot because we are both very competitive,” Thomas, who was recruited by UK offensive line coach Mike Summer, said. “He is one to set a goal and accomplish that goal. He makes sure everything is right and he always knows what to do. He just makes play and is a great player. Myself, I am a playmaker. I feel like I am always in a position to make a play. I have the mindset to take it easy, be patient and just play ball.”
Thomas was Godby High School’s leading rusher and receiver last year. This will be his fourth season to start at running back — a rarity at the Florida High School that is used to producing college players.
“We’ve have a lot of great running backs here, but he is just a complete player,” Godby coach Ronnie Cottrell, a former assistant coach at Alabama, said. “He plays both sides of the ball, too. I have not seen anything he cannot do as a football player. The University of Kentucky is getting a tremendous player.
“He is extremely productive. He makes plays when there is not a play. He has exceptional ball skills. He’s able to catch the ball and will fit very well into what system UK is using right now.”
Cottrell says he could be a “premier” defensive back.
“I just started playing defense for us last year, and had a good time,” Thomas said. “It was my idea to try and help the team. I did it in middle school and was a good safety. The coaches gave me a chance and I was just able to make plays. The coaches said they wondered why they didn’t let me play defense a long time ago.”
Cottrell said he was surprised when Thomas made a mid-July decision about his college choice so he could concentrate on his senior season.
“I was a bit surprised it was Kentucky, but I knew it could happen. Mike Summers and Joker Phillips did a tremendous job recruiting Kadeem, who was one of the leading tacklers in Florida and an all-state selection,” Cottrell said. “As Kadeem was making visits and things were going on, Khalid was paying close attention. He told me if felt like if he committed now, he could do a better job for Godby High School this season. He’s the consummate team player like that.
“When Khalid made his unofficial visit to Kentucky, it just changed everything. He was so impressed with Joker Phillips, and I am very impressed with the job Joker is doing. My players feel like it is really going to be a strong situation at Kentucky in the next few years. I expect Kadeem to be a big part of the team for Kentucky and I expect Khalid to have a major impact. They are a big part of what Godby football is all about and they will both be that way at Kentucky.”
Cottrell says there is little doubt that Kadeem Thomas, a linebacker, can help the Wildcats.
“He is an inside linebacker who is very physical. He was one of the best run stoppers coming out of Florida,” Cottrell said. “He’s just a very intelligent player who picks things up very quickly. I think he will do things (defensive coordinator) Rick Minter wants from his inside linebackers. He just has a knack for being around the ball, which is why he makes so many tackles. I think he could be very big on special teams and make an impact on their team this year.”
Cottrell knows Khalid Thomas could be the same way next year and also knows other recruiters won’t back off because of his verbal commitment to UK.
“On the day he committed, we still got all kinds of calls trying to get him. The recruiting won’t stop,” Cottrell said. “But I do know the type of person he is, and the kind of family he has, and I think he is committed to Kentucky and will be a big part of coach Phillips’ recruiting class. Kentucky is doing a good job recruiting in Florida and they are still on a couple of other guys here and we have several juniors that are really good, too.”