With a reputation for explosive play and punctual offensive spark, many outside observers question where Temple football would have been the past two seasons without running back Jahad Thomas. Interestingly enough, though, the program nearly missed out on the elusive tailback’s addition to its backfield.
The now senior entered the program under the ambiguous recruiting term “athlete” — for prospects with multiple high school positions — funneling him into a role on situational defensive schemes and special teams.
However, a nudge and a push during summer camp from then rising-sophomore quarterback Phillip Walker, a long-time friend and teammate, allowed Thomas the initial opportunity to carry the ball.
And once the coaching staff saw Thomas’ potential, he literally ran with it.
“I know [Walker] always was putting that bug in coach’s ear,” Thomas said. “During my sophomore year at camp, they told me I would get a shot at running back. Deep down inside, I knew I always wanted to be college running back, so when that opportunity came, I had to take advantage of it. I ended making few plays, and I’ve played offense ever since.”
The payoff for the Owls has been tenfold, with Thomas serving in a key role during Temple’s 10-4 mark last year, tied for best in school history. More, the senior has racked up a slew of awards, including All-American Athletic Conference First Team honors as a junior and multiple placements on national watch lists.
The senior has even earned two years of respect from his fellow teammates, who voted him one of nine players to wear a single-digit jersey. For Thomas, he dons No. 5, emulating former Southern Cal star Reggie Bush, one of his favorite players.
Many athletes have difficulty changing positions on a whim, but Thomas had been mentally preparing for his chance at running back since high school. While Walker had been showcasing his talents at quarterback since his freshman season at Elizabeth, Thomas finally stepped into the backfield starting as a senior.
And in similar fashion to his later Temple performance, he found himself spinning, juking and outpacing opposing defenses from the get-go.
“During our senior year, Jahad was the guy who was getting a lot of touches,” Walker said. “When he finally had an opportunity to play, he took it and ran with it. Our first game senior year, I didn’t touch the field until the second quarter because of Jahad. He took two kicks back to the house, caught an interception and then he scored again at running back. I didn’t have to do anything.”
Due to a late start establishing his presence amongst recruiting circles, Thomas failed to garner all that much attention from tier-one programs. However, a few standout performances caught some eyes around the industry.
Current head coach Matt Rhule’s predecessor, Steve Addazio, initially recruited Walker to join the program, and Thomas followed suit after strong production during a playoff victory. Soon enough, both had offers to travel south to Philadelphia and compete for the Owls on the gridiron.
“We weren’t really highly recruited by big-time schools,” Thomas said. “Most coaches that came in didn’t think we had the size or the grades to be playing for one of those Power Five programs. He was recruited by Temple first at some point, and then one playoff game, I had four touchdowns, and then I got the call.”
The two friends, who grew up together in Elizabeth and now room with each other at Temple, have served as a mutual support system for one another. Ironically, they started out as competitors, facing off on the basketball court at a young age.
At the end of the day, though, it was sports that continued to push Walker and Thomas closer together.
“He grew up on one side of the town and I grew up on another,” Walker recalled. “We played Pop Warner together, and played against each other all the time, but when we got to middle school we joined the same AAU team and our relationship got even better.”
As for his personal life, Thomas self-admitted how “boring” he is, just acting like a normal college student in terms of social interaction and chilling at his place. As a career, the star running back sees two paths — professional football or social work.
Similar to his successes at both Elizabeth and Temple, the senior hopes the NFL will give him an opportunity to make a name for himself. Despite his size, Thomas preached that reaching the professional level certainly isn’t impossible, naming a number of notably small tailbacks.
One definite for the senior, though, is his relationship with sports. As an addict of both playing and watching, the avid fanatic discussed how he enjoys looking back on the legends of football.
“I grew up all around sports, so anything sports related I want to be around,” Thomas expressed. “One thing I do like doing is going back and watching some old film of the greats, those tapes always have something to teach you.”
With or without the NFL, though, Thomas still aims to make an impact on young men. Both he and Walker have returned to Elizabeth on multiple occasions, speaking with high school athletes in an attempt to show them there’s life outside of northern New Jersey.
With a career in social work, the senior believes he can make a difference to communities similar to the one he grew in as a child. Dedication to service, not to mention people in general, certainly add another dimension to Thomas that helps him stand apart from many of his peers.
And that’s not even counting his on-the-field prowess, proving time and time again that it’s the smallest packages that pack the biggest punch.