Stanford looking to reestablish defensive identity at Notre Dame
After allowing 48 points against Arizona, Stanford defense hopes to rebound at ND
Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy form a ball-hawking linebacking corps
A former wrestler, Thomas is the physical leader of the group, both on and off field
The angriest man Marietta, Ga., football ever saw, the one who stomped around training camp this fall wearing a gorilla T-shirt, ran off the field Saturday with a broad smile and a football cradled in his arm. His overtime interception against Arizona preceded Stanford's winning score, and Chase Thomas was happy. This was an occasion worthy of beating your chest.
Hours later, in a house in Menlo Park, Calif., his head got to pounding. The fifth-year linebacker brought up game film on his iPad. While eating pizza alone, Thomas chewed over Arizona's big plays, reliving a game in which his proud, feral defense gave up 48 points and 600-plus yards. When he was done watching, he watched it again. By then, he had no idea where he'd placed that souvenir football.
"It's definitely something you can celebrate," Thomas said this week of the win. "At the same time, you wake up the next morning and realize, hey, we need to get back to work and fix this stuff. So it doesn't happen again."
Stanford's identity resides in playing pitiless, razor-toothed defense, inspired mostly by a group of linebackers with disparate personalities but the same general desire to ram their fist down your throat. And to have a chance at taking down unbeaten No. 7 Notre Dame Saturday, they'll have to remember who they are. Last weekend produced a concise meeting-room conclusion: That's not us.
Rediscovery should happen quickly. Thomas, the 6-foot-4, 248-pound snarly All-America, and cohorts Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy form a ball-hawking linebacking corps that leads the way for the nation's No. 6 rushing defense. The Cardinal average 8.6 tackles for loss per game and "take joy in ruining any offense's day," as Skov put it.
"The second we put those helmets on it's about imposing our will against our opposition and forcing them to quit and breaking their will," Skov said. "That's the way we want to play. We play angry and we play aggressive."
In fact, they know little else. The emotive Skov played Pop Warner football in Mexico, where practice took place in a park where a swath of dirt and rocks qualified as a field. The quieter Murphy, a 6-6, 261-pound monolith of an outside linebacker, enjoys roping horses and once wrestled an 800-pound steer. On purpose.
But the epicenter is Thomas, the once-skinny, unsettled transplant from SEC country who everyone sees coming but can't quite figure out. "Chase is that guy that, you meet him and you talk to him, and you know that he's a good guy," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "But there's something about him that lets you know he's a little bit different. He kind of makes you want to keep an eye on him. Because you're not really sure what this guy is capable of."
Anyone interested can inquire at Centennial High in Roswell, Ga.
Early in a game in 2007, Centennial ran a triple-option away from Thomas while he was a senior at Walton High. This upset him. Thomas charged down the line, knocked down the fullback, knocked down the quarterback and finally chased the pitch man, corralled him and, uh, finished the play.
"He slammed him like the Hulk did Loki in The Avengers," Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo said.
The head of the Georgia lacrosse officials once presided over seven or eight consecutive Walton games, Hidalgo recalled, because there were complaints that Thomas hit too hard. Even teammates weren't spared. During one-on-one "chute" drills, Thomas stood up offensive linemen through the bars of the "chute" and flipped the whole apparatus over on them.
"That's his personality," Hidalgo said. "He was just born with it. If he'd have had a twin, fighting over the pacifier in the crib, he would have choked him unconscious and taken the pacifier away."
If there is a point of origin for Thomas' disorderly conduct, it may be the wrestling mat. Thomas wrestled for seven years. He says he was "terrible" at first. Too hesitant. His solution was to stop caring and start punishing.
"It's you versus him," Thomas said. "You go in there for about six minutes, and the tougher man is going to come out on top."
He needed that grit to endure culture shock at Stanford. His freshman year roommate was a computer science student who devoted his time to inventing phone apps. When Thomas returned from games on Saturdays, his roommate asked if Thomas had won the match.
He also had not filled out a BCS-caliber frame at that point, and one ACC recruiter actually saw Thomas' picture, chuckled and walked out of Walton's football offices, saying, He can't play for us. Thomas wasn't ready to play for Stanford initially, either, as he redshirted as a freshman. Then-assistant D.J. Durkin made the defensive ends run if Thomas didn't meet weight goals. Thomas had to watch, because if he ran, he'd trim pounds.
When the weight did come, however, it didn't displace his quickness or athleticism. Thomas has 24 tackles for loss dating back to 2011, and he uses his hands and long arms to get to quarterbacks in innovative ways. "He'll run to the edge of a tackle and he'll jump and one-arm stick the guy, and somehow he ends up behind him," said defensive lineman Terrence Stephens. "It's like defying the laws of physics and gravity."
Now, Thomas serves as the team's conscience and its most respected voice. But he's unmistakably still a curmudgeon. At breakfast Tuesday, he shoved Stephens for no reason. Later, in a meeting, Stephens had his feet on Thomas' chair and Thomas just sat on them.
He was more sober a week earlier. Washington had hung the first loss on the Cardinal, so Thomas issued a locker-room mission statement before Tuesday's practice. We shouldn't have coaches begging us to practice hard, he said. There's the door right there. If you're not dedicated, if you're not in this 100 percent, you can leave.
Thomas is one of five players left from a 2008 recruiting class that included Andrew Luck, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. Part of why Thomas didn't join them in the NFL is because he wasn't coveted as a prospect. He wants to prove he can lead the team without them. Upending the revitalized Irish -- and atoning for last week's Cardinal sins -- would go a long way to accomplishing that.
"We've never been a one-man team," Thomas said. "No one ever thought we'd run the ball when Toby Gerhart left. Nobody thought we'd have the same hardworking mentality when [Jim] Harbaugh left. No one thought we'd beat USC or have a winning season when Andrew left. We love proving guys wrong here. We do what we do. It doesn't matter what other people say."
As for the aforementioned animal T-shirts: The veterans ordered them for camp as a lark, recommending specific animals to match personalities. Skov's featured a rabbit. Murphy's showed a white tiger. The choice for Thomas was clear: The "grumpy gorilla," Murphy said, glowering and frowning but still perfectly content -- until you make it angry.
"He's just a guy who really has no care in the world," Stephens said. "And then he goes on the football field, and he's just an animal."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter.