Michael Thomas has turned himself into one of the most polished and consistent wide receivers in the country. He is not your typical collegiate one-trick pony wideout, who is just a deep threat, or can just make plays in space. Thomas does all of the little things to set up opposing cornerbacks to gain separation.
It starts with his release, followed by his precise footwork, his slight head movements, the separation at the stem (top) of the route, and finally his concentration to make the catch with his hands extended. There is a reason why the Los Angeles product has vaulted up mock drafts and could be selected in the first or second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Here is a breakdown of why you can't guard Mike:
1. Slant vs Kendall Fuller
Virginia Tech comes out in Cover 1 on 3rd-and-5 versus Ohio State's 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) grouping. The safety shaded away from cornerback Kendall Fuller, one of the nation's best cornerbacks, who was manned up on Thomas (top of screen).
a. On the snap, Thomas does a good job of not only avoiding a false step, but he makes it look like he is taking an outside release with his right foot and keeps his eyes up field.
b. Thomas made Fuller respect the outside move, which allowed the receiver to gain inside leverage. Thomas saw/ assumed that Fuller is going to make contact with him, so he swung his right arm over the top, to chop down Fuller's extended arms.
c. As Thomas extended his route up the field, he continued to sell a vertical route. When he got to the stem, where he had to make his move to create space, Thomas did the little things to gain separation. He sold a head fake up the field, while he jabbed his outside foot.
d. Because Thomas knew the ball could be coming in hot from Cardale Jones, he snapped his head as soon as he slanted at the stem. Many times in college football, an inexperienced, sloppy receiver takes too long to snap his head towards the quarterback, which typically results in a drop.
e. Thomas created separation, finished the catch with his hands away from his body, which then allowed him to stay in stride and make a play after the catch.
As a result his attention to detail, Thomas executed the slant route and he made it look relatively easy against a cornerback, who will be strapping up his pads on Sundays.
2. Vertical route vs Jourdan Lewis
On 1st-and-10, Michigan manned up Pro Football Focus' highest ranked cornerback, Jourdan Lewis, on Thomas (top of screen), while they rolled Cover 3 to the trips side. Lewis had an outside shade on Thomas, in an attempt to take away the deep shot, since he had zone help inside.
Lewis came into "The Game" with a high reputation, as he only allowed 26 completions on 72 targets. Thomas only came away with two grabs on the day, but he also forced a pass interference and he was only targeted four times, due to the lopsided scoreboard and the run heavy gameplan.
a. As noted in the first breakdown, Thomas' detailed footwork set the table for the rest of the route. Off the snap, the wideout jabbed his right foot into the ground, forcing Lewis to pause and shift his body weight as if Thomas was going to run a quick slant.
b. Thomas' jab step forced Lewis to slightly turn his hips and just like that, he already had him beat. Thomas knew that the defender was going to try to slow him down, so he chopped his arms down. Even though Lewis started with outside leverage, Thomas won outside leverage, due to his footwork.
c. The receiver does not have elite vertical speed, but he used his veteran instincts to keep separation between himself and the Michigan corner. Thomas continued to hand fight as Lewis attempted close the gap between him and Thomas.
d. Thomas boxed out the defender with his body and hauled in J.T. Barrett's touch pass. He showed elite control, concentration and hands, reminiscent of Devin Smith, as he beat the Big Ten's best cornerback for a 38-yard gain.
The 6'3" wideout showed the league's best corner that he is not just a short to intermediate threat.