Defensive end Chad Thomas realized how much he missed football the past two weeks without it.
When the 6-5, 255-pound freshman out of Booker T. Washington High ran onto Greentree Field on Friday and Saturday, the thrill was even better than he had imagined.
Thomas was playing with the first team, because senior Anthony Chickillo was in street clothes with most of the other veterans who served as player/coaches while the youngsters got more intense practice time than they had all season.
“I was excited to be out here,” Thomas said. “Coach [Al] Golden was talking to me and telling me I’ve got to step up more. Chick was not practicing these first two practices, so I did step up a lot — put a lot of work in, practiced longer.
“The young guys are getting in, the ones who didn’t play that much. We’re just learning how to put it all together.”
The two-day sneak preview for the underclassmen dangled some motivation for next season.
It also reminded them that the Dec.27 Duck Commander Independence Bowl game against South Carolina (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) is an opportunity for the Hurricanes (6-6, 3-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) to end 2014 right and properly segue into 2015.
They were like, ‘Hey, I’m going to show the staff and coaches who I am and what I’m going to do,’” Golden said. “From that standpoint, we’re moving those guys forward while protecting and getting the older guys rested up.”
The seniors have one more chance to prove themselves.
“The last two games were disappointing,” senior center Shane McDermott said of losses at Virginia and to Pittsburgh. “It was a very good idea to have two weeks off. We were able to get away from football and clear our heads. As you can see, we’ve come back with a lot of energy and are having fun.
“It’s like starting over again. We’re going to go out there and attack this game the way we should.”
Freshman receiver Braxton Berrios said he was grateful for the break to help him tackle his final exams.
“You don’t want to let a semester worth of work slip away in the last week,” Berrios said. “We had a long season. It didn’t go as planned. So this allowed us to recuperate and refocus.
“We had two great days out here.”
Thomas said his two days as a starting defensive end were helpful, though the so-called “break,” he said, was “not really a break because we were out here putting in a lot of work with [strength and conditioning] coach [Andreu] Swasey — staying in the weight room, coming out here running.
“And then we got back on the field and everything felt easier not getting tired or winded.”
Learning to lead
Thomas said he’s working on his leadership skills.
“I’m being vocal right now,” he said. “When I first came in I didn’t really talk to all the players like that because I didn’t know them like that. Right now I’m talking to them more like family. On the field, I can call out my linebackers, tell them to get right. … Then we just play better. I think my leadership is working a little bit.”
Golden noted that as the underclassmen were positioning themselves for future playing time, the veterans enjoyed coaching before they’re thrown back into the fray.
Running back Duke Johnson, for example, wore a headset most of the day while he instructed.
The players are off Sunday and Monday while coaches begin preparing a game plan.
Practice resumes Tuesday, when the Canes turn their attention to the Gamecocks.