When Navy senior Lenter Thomas talks, which is rare, his voice is hardly much louder than a whisper.
But when Thomas comes flying up from his safety position to make a tackle, the blend of speed, muscle, shoulder pads and violence is resounding.
"I don't even know if my eyes are open when I hit people," Thomas says. "I just see things and react. It's like a game to me. I like to see if I can make a ball carrier go backward. If I knock him back, I win. If he knocks me back, he wins."
The thing about Thomas is, he almost always wins. Part thunderclap and part train wreck, Thomas' collisions with ball carriers over the past two seasons have been one of the few bright spots on Navy's defense. The Mids may have won just two of their last 22 games, but more than a few running backs and quarterbacks have walked to the sideline, ears ringing, wishing they'd never ended up in Thomas' crosshairs.
"When LT is 100 percent, he can be a force out there," said Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green. "He's always going full speed, but he has a burst that helps him come up and make a lot of big tackles when a guy breaks through the line. We don't want him making too many tackles, just because he's a safety, but he's an important player for us."
The problem lately for Thomas is that he hasn't been 100 percent. After leading the Mids in tackles with 98 last year as a junior, his first year of varsity action, everyone expected big things this year out of the 5-foot-11, 197-pound Thomas. But a little slip during two-a-days caused some pain in his knee, and what seemed like nothing turned out to be a partial tear of his medial collateral ligament. "It's frustrating," Thomas says. "I think to myself sometimes, 'This is my senior year, why did something like this have to happen?' "
The injury, which required a brace but not surgery, forced him to miss nearly all of the preseason practices. He seemed healthy heading into the season opener against Southern Methodist, but in the first quarter Thomas hurt the knee again. He got the attention of the coaching staff quick enough to come out of the game, and on the very next play SMU tight end John Hampton beat him for a 13-yard touchdown.
"I was hurting, but I had to suck it up and play through it," Thomas says. "That's still no excuse for giving up that touchdown. I should have been in position to make the play."
Thomas had limited action the next week in a loss to N.C. State, but two weeks later he played most of the game against Northwestern and led the Mids with nine tackles in a 49-40 loss.
"LT works so hard in rehab, I know it just kills him to not be quite 100 percent yet," Green says. "He's showing signs, but occasionally he still drags that knee a little bit. He's almost back to where he was the first time I saw him when I stepped on this campus."
The first time Thomas stepped on campus, as a high school senior in 1998, he knew the Academy was going to be his calling. But though he had a stellar high school football career in the small town of Eagle Lake, Texas, he decided to spend a year at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., to better prepare himself for the rigorous academic and athletic challenges that awaited him in Annapolis. It was a far cry from his days at home, riding horses through open Texas landscape with his brothers.
"I remember it being cold," Thomas says with a smile. "I was playing football and taking basic course, but I got homesick and wanted to come home around spring break. Luckily, my parents talked me out of it."
Lucky for Navy too. Though he got no varsity action his first two years, Thomas blossomed into a star when he finally got into the lineup his junior year, using his 4.4 speed to create havoc for offenses. With his knee nearly at full strength again this year, he should be back doing the same soon, starting with Duke tomorrow in Navy's homecoming game.
Next for Navy
Opponent: Duke (1-3)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
When: Tomorrow, noon
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Navy by 2