By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Robert Thomas has put last year behind him.
Most of Arkansas Razorback nation has joined him in that.
But just in case you weren’t aware of it, it wasn’t a good year for the Hogs in 2012. It started with the sudden dismissal of head coach Bobby Petrino during the off-season following a motorcycle accident and subsequent revelation of an affair with a woman who worked for him.
The transition to John L. Smith was just as rocky. It began with a lackluster win over FCS Jacksonville State then came a four-game losing streak which included three consecutive losses at home to Louisiana-Monroe — and Thomas’ former teammate at Muskogee High, Jeremy Burton — Rutgers, and a 52-0 shellacking by Alabama.
Then came a 58-10 road loss at Texas A&M.
Arkansas would then win back-to-back games before dropping four of their last five games and missed a bowl trip for the first time since 2008.
“It was pretty humbling,” said the senior defensive tackle, listed at 6-foot-3, 318 pounds on the spring roster. Up here we win a lot and you expect to but it brought home the reality that you can always lose. We never played together like we’re supposed to.”
Spring never felt so new for all involved. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema replaced Smith and the slate has been wiped clean.
“Not just for myself but like all in all, it was a real good spring,” Thomas said.
It’s been a time of growth for Thomas, just as it was when he had to forego his initial scholarship to UA to bring up his academic profile while getting a solid season at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who followed Bielema to the Fayetteville campus, noted some in the spring.
“Since I’ve walked in the door here, from a mental standpoint, he’s really learned to handle adverse situations on the field. He’s made really big strides in that respect and I’m excited about his potential.
“Anytime something doesn’t go well for himself or the defense, the key is how to respond. You go to the next play. The constant challenge for him has been to purely play one play at a time. We said we were wiping the slate clean when we got here and advancing on the knowledge gained from what we see ourselves. I look forward to him carrying what we’ve seen into the fall.”
Thomas likes the multiple 4-3 scheme Bielema and Partridge brought in.
“The basic package starts with man to man, which is what I like, just getting after the guy in front of me,” Thomas said. “There’s more to it but that is stressed within the basic fundamentals,”
In clarifying, Partridge noted: “We’ll move him, blitz him, but yeah, it all starts with good fundamental football and the objective of getting better at defeating the man they’re going against. I like his athletic ability, I like how hard he’s working to be coachable. His weight is running between 320 and 330 and he can really move.
“It’s going to take continued improvement just from the fundamental part of playing defensive line that will allow his athletic ability to shine.”
Thomas watched another former Rougher, Stacy McGee, get drafted this past April by the Oakland Raiders. While McGee’s stock was thought to be at risk because of his off-the-field issues, Thomas hasn’t had to battle that.
Mostly, it’s putting last year in its place and learning from it.
“Going through that process, it hungered me, just like being at Coffeyville,” Thomas said. “I thought finishing the season at LSU (a 20-13 loss), we ended the year with our best game. But it showed me I have to push harder. Don’t ever focus on what you have done. You can always get better.
“I look at what Stacy did and I think it would be great to give Muskogee another example of someone who did that. I pray I can.”
Divine help aside, Partridge says Thomas has the tools to get it done.
“The potential is there,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people with potential. If he continues to stay on the course he is, he’s going to greatly enhance that opportunity.”
File: Robert Thomas
2012: Played in all 12 games, started twice (Alabama, Rutgers). Recorded 18 tackles, 5.0 for loss with 2.5 sacks, and five quarterback hurries. Had a season-high five tackles and career-high two for losses vs. Louisiana-Monroe.
2011: Played in 12 of the 13 games with five starts, totaling 23 tackles. Had a career-high six tackles vs. Alabama.
2010: Thomas had 48 tackles at Coffeyville Community College.
2009: Redshirted at Coffeyville.
2008: Selected Muskogee Phoenix Defensive Player of the Year with 81 tackles, 62 solo, 15 tackles for loss, five sacks and two blocked field goals. On offense, he carried the ball six times for 16 yards and one touchdown.
Sources: Phoenix archives, UA athletics