Barry Jackson

What happened when Jeff Thomas saw Mark Richt. And UM coach dishes on Hurricanes WRs

A six-pack of University of Miami Hurricanes receiver notes on a Tuesday:

It could have been awkward, when Mark Richt saw Jeff Thomas earlier this year, months after dismissing him from the team during Thanksgiving week.

But it really wasn’t.

“We ran into each other and gave each other a hug,” Thomas said. “It was good. No [hard feelings] at all.”

The final chapter on Thomas’ surprising return to Miami — after stepping foot on the Illinois campus with the intent of enrolling there — must still be written.

But Thomas couldn’t be happier how it has gone so far.

“I’m more than pleased — than I’ve ever been — to come back,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for Manny Diaz to allow me to come back and be part of this amazing program.”

Before Diaz agreed in January to allow Thomas to return to the team, Diaz solicited input from players on the matter, and the feedback was positive. Thomas said Diaz, after hearing him out, told him to “play at my highest ability I’ve ever played before.”

So Thomas said he has been determined to shore up any deficiencies in his game, and receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield has helped him.

“I’m improving my hands,” he said. “I’ve got to use my hands because DBs like to grab me. [Stubblefield] has helped me a lot. I wasn’t a guy who does square cuts and speed cuts [before Stubblefield taught him that]. Square cuts have become my best friend now.”

Here’s what Stubblefield said he told Thomas:

“There’s a difference between being skilled and athletic. When I looked at his film — and all the guys’ film — I saw athleticism. I did not see skill. What’s the difference? There are certain guys in the NFL that are extremely fast. That’s athleticism. Then there are certain guys in the NFL that are highly productive because they’re very skilled.

“Right now, it’s about trying to get the skill level of the position up to where the athleticism is. That’s where you see the best of the best. I talked to all my guys about, ‘Let’s work on the craft of being a receiver.’ It’s personal to me when somebody thinks if you’re just fast, you can go play receiver. You need to know that I either need to go outside or inside if I get pressed.”

So where’s Thomas in regard to all of that?

“He’s gotten better,” Stubblefield said. “It’s been fun to watch what you teach and they do it and are successful, because they kind of have a smile and it also creates validity for what you’re teaching. They’re like, ‘All right, I feel you.’” Your skill has to be what separates you from someone running a 4.3 and a 40-inch vertical.”

Teams geared their defense to stop Thomas last season, and there were several games where it worked. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos and Stubblefield have been working on ways to free him up.

“I think I am going to be able to be freed up more than last year,” Thomas said. “That will be a good. Now we’ve got KJ Osborn and Mike Harley and all the other guys will help me get open.”

Thomas, who led the Canes in receiving with 35 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns last season, said he has given no thought to whether he will turn pro after this, his junior season. But it wouldn’t surprise anybody if he turns pro in January.

His electrifying ability as a returner should help his stock, but he needs to produce and comport himself maturely this season to ease concerns of NFL teams.

Last season, he had 10 kick returns this season for 260 yards, a 26-yard average.

He also had nine punt returns for 221 yards, an incredible 24.6-yard average — and the one touchdown. His all-purpose yards total: 1,063.

When Thomas was jettisoned from the team, a program source said he was not taking care of business off the field. Some around the program also said he needed to show more of a team-first attitude.

Did Thomas believe he needed to change as a person?

“Not really, but [I want to] pick people up, with the receivers, make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, on the same page and competing to the best of their ability.”

Harley, who’s close with Thomas, said he has seen a change: “More maturity. He’s serious now. He’s ready to ball.”

Having mature KJ Osborn as a roommate and mentor has certainly helped.

Stubblefield said last week that jobs in the receiver rotation are still open, but the depth chart offered some degree of clarity. As expected, Thomas and KJ Osborn were listed as starters, and Mike Harley Jr. also was listed as a starter for when UM opens in three-receiver sets.

Second-team receivers include Brian Hightower (behind Osborn) and Mark Pope (behind Thomas). So Hightower and Pope look likely to get snaps. And remember, Dan Enos has said it’s realistic to get five playing time.

So that’s five.

Marshall Few, a former walk-on, is listed second on the depth chart behind Harley (and Corey Gaynor predicted Few will surprise people this season), but it would be surprising if Few plays ahead of Dee Wiggins, who’s listed behind Osborn and Hightower.

So Wiggins, who played the most of the four freshmen receivers last year, could be the sixth to get playing time if UM goes six deep, though it’s all obviously fluid.

That would leave out freshman Jeremiah Payton (who impressed during spring ball) and Evidence Njoku, who has been something of a non-factor so far.

Whoever is the “fourth or fifth guy has to come in and be ready to roll for 10-15 plays a game and he needs to know all the positions,” Stubblefield said. “He needs to be the next best guy in in every single position.”

Stubblefield said last week that Payton is “fighting his tail off to stay in the mix. As we know with Brian, Wiggins and Pope, it is tough to play as a freshman no matter where you go in the country. Jeremiah has an unbelievable attitude. His work ethic is pretty gosh dang solid.

“He needs to get stronger. He needs to understand the college game is a little bit faster and there are some details in his route running he needs to improve on. What’s great about him is he has the want-to to do it. The fight is still there between him and the rest of the guys.”

Harley, a skilled blocker who has 30 catches for 331 yards in two seasons, has shown growth.

“He’s like the energizer bunny right now,” Stubblefield said. “He’s logging a lot of steps, a lot of yards in practice. The speed is still there. He’s rolling. This has been a hard camp and he hasn’t missed a beat.”

Stubblefield, on Hightower, who missed part of last season with an ankle injury and much of the offseason program with a knee injury but is healthy now: “His career is going to be as a consistent, consistent receiver. There might not be the highs, there might not be the lows.

But he’s a pretty consistent receiver.”

One thing that absolutely must change: UM must correct the infestation of dropped passes.

Per Herald correspondent Daniel Gould, UM finished the 2018 regular season with an absurd 40 dropped passes this season.

Here’s how it broke down: Lawrence Cager with nine, Thomas with seven, Darrell Langham and Wiggins with five apiece, Brevin Jordan and Harley Jr. with four apiece, Hightower and Evidence Njoku with two apiece and Travis Homer and Will Mallory with one each.

All of those players are back except Cager (the leader in drops who’s now with Georgia), Langham (tried out for the Dolphins but wasn’t signed) and Homer (now with the Seattle Seahawks).

“There are days we’re catching every one,” Stubblefield said. “There have been some days where we’ve dropped the easy ones. There have been days where we’ve been pretty gosh darn good on contested balls. And there have been days where we’ve been bad on contested balls. It’s all about trying to get all of that together. We’re expected to make the routine play. We want to be 80 percent on contested catches. That is lofty because a lot of people talk about that being 50/50.”

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