CLEMSON, S.C. -- Ratcliff Thomas swears he's not out to prove anything to all of the football programs that wouldn't take a chance on him in 1992.
A freshman from Woodbridge, Va., Thomas has by default become the leader of Maryland's defense. With veterans around him falling to injuries, ineligibility and suspensions, Thomas has admirably plugged a hole at inside linebacker. When Maryland lines up against Clemson today (12:10 p.m.), he'll enter as the leading tackler on either side.
"I never imagined this," Thomas said. "I'm glad I'm leading the team in tackles, but I never envisioned that. My goal was just to get some playing time and help the team."
Actually, if Thomas had proceeded with earlier plans, this week- end he would be beginning his second season of basketball with UMBC.
Thomas had been the Northern Virginia football Player of the Year after two-way stardom for T. C. Williams High in 1991. He didn't receive the college board scores necessary for freshman eligibility until after the letter-of-intent signing period, however, and by then Thomas had turned his attention to gaining a basketball scholarship.
Thomas, 6 feet 1 and 223 pounds, was some 20 pounds lighter when he played in the backcourt for T. C. Williams and was named the Alexandria Player of the Year. UMBC offered a scholarship, and Thomas took it.
He joined some UMBC teammates in the Kenner League in the summer of 1992, but began doubting his selection of sport.
"I wasn't getting excited for the games," Thomas said. "At the end of the summer, before the [Virginia] all-star football game, I kept asking myself, 'What am I doing on a basketball court?' I went into that all-star game thinking it would be the last football game I ever played."
With the all-star game as backdrop, Thomas got the sales pitch from several prep schools, and decided to attend Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, an hour's drive south of Lynchburg. He was academically eligible to play college football last fall. Does he ever wonder why a college with an open scholarship didn't come forward?
"College football is a business," he said. "I didn't have what it took to get in when they were signing people."
Thomas remained patient, swallowed some discipline and set about opening eyes at Hargrave, which plays other post-graduate teams, college JVs and junior colleges. Maryland won out over East Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
"I couldn't believe nobody had signed him for football," said Joe Freeland, who began the Hargrave post-grad team in 1991. "He was the Player of the Year in Northern Virginia, a pretty good area for high school football, and you think people would be willing to wait for an athlete of his caliber to qualify.
"Last year, recruiters began coming out of the woodwork, saying, 'We recruited him last year, when he was in high school.' I told them they missed their chance, and they wouldn't get another shot."
Thomas couldn't crack the sprint relay teams at T. C. Williams, which has a renowned track and field program, but he did run the 100 meters in 10.9 seconds in high school.
He was moved to inside linebacker the first week of practice at Maryland, and has been a starter since the last intrasquad scrimmage.
"I was a little nervous starting the year with a true freshman, but by the same token, he's the best we had," said Mel Foels, who coaches Maryland's inside linebackers. "I saw great instincts in him."
Thomas, 19, has been forced to lead a defense that has allowed more yardage than any other team in Division I-A. He's among the wounded who needed a week off after the Oct. 16 defeat of Duke, as he had three first hits and nine assists while wearing a cast on his right hand to protect the thumb he broke against Georgia Tech a week earlier.
The cast came off last week, and Thomas said he feels better prepared to help Maryland salvage the rest of the season.