Seeing and Believing

Forest Hills’ Thomas brought  offense to special teams

by Aaron Garcia

Forest Hills senior Marces Thomas, Union County Weekly’s 2011 Special Teams Player of the Year, totaled six returns for touchdowns this season. (Aaron Garcia/UCW photo)

There’s some leeway in the definition of a good kick returner. Speed and quickness are musts, but neither is as vital to the position as intestinal fortitude. After all, it’s not easy to stand stationary waiting for a ball to get to you as 11 members of the other team barrel toward you.

Think about standing in the middle of the highway, facing oncoming traffic.

But some players, once the ball gets to them, don’t focus on the defenders. They don’t seem to notice the mal-intentioned opponents charging closer. Some players see the small slivers of ground left uncovered.

Marces Thomas saw opportunity.

This season, the Forest Hills senior was simply electric as the Yellow Jackets kick returner. Thomas totaled six returns for scores this year; three on kickoffs, and another three on punt returns. He totaled 395 yards on kickoff returns for a 56.4 yards-per-attempt average while finding pay dirt against Porter Ridge, North Stanly and Anson. On punts, Thomas had 17 returns for 360 yards – a 24-yard average – and scored against Central Academy, Cuthbertson and West Stanly.

On the occasions he didn’t reach the end zone, the Forest Hills offense still started its possessions with excellent field position.

It’s rare that a return man establishes himself as a bona fide extension of the offense, but that’s exactly what Thomas did this season. And for that, he’s been named Union County Weekly’s 2011 Special Teams Player of the Year.

“I felt like my year went well,” Thomas said. “Whenever the coaches needed me to step up, I provided for them every time. They gave me a lot of chances to do it, and I did it for them.”

Perhaps the most exceptional part of Thomas’ effort this season was that he was equally effective on both punts and kickoffs. While the two plays both entail returning the ball, they couldn’t be more different. For one, a player fielding a kickoff typically has more space to work with, as the ball arrives well before the defenders, giving the returner time to spot a hole and hit it with momentum. Punts, though, usually get to the return man at about the same time as the defenders, which makes catching the ball difficult, and finding any separation nearly impossible.

“Punt returning is the hardest because people are in your face and you’re looking way up (at the ball),” said Forest Hills coach John Lowery. “On the kickoff, there’s a little more space and you feel more of a comfort zone.

“I think (Thomas’ success) comes from a confidence and believing in yourself. He knows he’s big enough that if somebody wipes him, he can take it.”

And that, according to both player and coach, is what sparked Thomas’ exceptional season.

“I feel like if (the other team) kicks me the ball, I’m going to run it back every time,” Thomas said matter-of-factly. “We used to have a wide receiver coach here that told me, ‘Whenever you get a kick return, the best thing to do is keep running and don’t stop moving.’ I always put that in my mind. Whenever I get the ball, keep running and don’t stop and just keep going.”

Lowery agreed and said Thomas’ fearlessness made it nearly impossible for opposing kickers to avoid him.

“When you believe that thing is going back every time, then you want to get your hands on it to take a few chances,” Lowery said.

And then, the magic would happen.

“(Thomas) saw things coming and knew how to almost anticipate where those people were going so he could get away from them,” Lowery said. “The great ones – in the NFL, college or high school – all of them have some kind of knack of understanding (that).

“I really believe he sees things and anticipates the movements of the defense. That’s why he’s so good,” Lowery noted. “You can direct people, but you’ve just got to have that (quality). You’ve got to have (some courage) so when you see that, you can make those moves. You can’t teach it.”

And when you’re the player in question, you can’t really explain it.

“It’s like you don’t even think; it just happens,” said Thomas. “I’d be like, ‘I don’t even know how I did that, but I did it.’

“When you see it on film, you’re like, ‘How did I do that?’”

And often times, the other team was left asking the same thing.

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