CLEMSON — In August, Dabo Swinney had nothing good to say about Brandon Thomas.
Just before a scrimmage, a reporter asked Clemson’s head coach if he had anything positive to say about Thomas, a highly-touted sophomore left tackle.
“I might,” Swinney replied. “Ask me again after the scrimmage.”
After the scrimmage, the reporter asked – and, nothing.
It was that kind of summer for Thomas. Considered the favorite to win the left tackle spot vacated by All-ACC selection Chris Hairston, he was beaten soundly by former walk-on Phillip Price and tossed into the coaches’ proverbial doghouse.
That made for an odd scene at practice in late September: Swinney – who now needed Thomas to step in at left guard with senior David Smith sidelined by shoulder surgery – laying down the law to him.
This was his time, and he needed to take advantage.
“I just really challenged him to grow up and play,” Swinney said this week. “To prepare. This was just a guy that wasn’t fully committed. I told him, this football team needs you. You’ve got all this talent, but talent is just potential.”
Over the last month-plus, that potential is fulfilling itself.
Thomas has started the last five games at left guard, and found a home. As No.5 Clemson prepares for Saturday’s visit to 6-2 Georgia Tech, he has stabilized an offensive line paving the way for the nation’s No.15 total offense.
“They didn’t have to build my confidence up – it comes from playing,” Thomas said. “(Coaches) told me it’s my job now, and that confidence comes from playing.”
That might have been just what Thomas needed. Rated as one of the nation’s top 15 offensive tackles by both Rivals.com and Scout.com coming out of Spartanburg’s Dorman High School in 2009, he rotated between tackle and guard as a freshman.
“He had been kind of nonchalant about being a great football player,” Swinney said. “He had all the ability, but he was ho-hum about being a great player, for whatever reason. We tried everything last year to get him going, to get a little fire in his britches.”
Junior center Dalton Freeman said Thomas “has more talent than anyone on this team,” but saw Thomas’ failed battle for left tackle take a toll.
“Early on, I don’t know if he felt like he was getting a chance,” Freeman said. “He was always doing what he had to do to get by.”
When Smith –the returning starter at left guard – was sidelined by shoulder surgery for an injury suffered in practice, Thomas wasn’t the first choice. Senior guard and former starter Mason Cloy started against Auburn. But when he went down early on with a shoulder injury of his own, Thomas stepped in and helped Clemson to 624 yards of total offense, the third-best total in school history.
The following week, Swinney challenged Thomas in practice.
“He told me it was time to step up,” Thomas said.
It was a major motivator, Swinney said.
“Not playing was a big motivating factor for him,” he said. He realized he’s not going to play just because he’s talented. The biggest motivating thing was walking out of the stadium and looking at everybody, (thinking), ‘I’m a talented guy and I can’t get on the field.’
“He realized, ‘OK, I’m going to have to do what they ask me to do.”
Since that talk, Thomas has taken the spot and made it his own. Against Maryland, he played 82 snaps, tying Freeman and senior right tackle Landon Walker for a team-high in a 56-45 comeback win.
“We all challenged him, coaches included,” Freeman said. “We knew he could help us. It’s just a matter of getting his confidence up and getting his mind right.”
Last week, he played 42 snaps before injuring his right shoulder. He has experienced on-and-off problems with the joint since spring, and had surgery following spring practice to repair it. He wears a harness on the shoulder, and will adjust it this week to better help him against Georgia Tech.
“I feel pretty good at (left guard),” Thomas said. “Confidence is the main thing. I’ve gained a lot of confidence in that spot. I think I’m playing the best of anybody. I think I’ve sustained the spot and think I should keep it. David is a good backup who came in and played the spot well, but I can play well.”
Swinney says Thomas “hasn’t played great” but knows Thomas has made huge strides.
At least now, Swinney is more than happy to talk about him.
“He’s not as consistent as we want him to be, but he’s made a tremendous amount of progress,” Swinney said. “At this point in the season, it’s very encouraging. He’s a guy we’re going to be counting on greatly going into next year.”