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In the days leading up to the Collegiate Bowl, we will profile several of the players committed to play in the sixth annual showcase. Today’s feature is on Connecticut wide receiver Noel Thomas.
Noel Thomas is from Connecticut, so it’s likely he knows that for UConn, basketball will always be king. But for this talented senior receiver, that didn’t matter. The only thing that did was putting in the effort week in and week out. And after four years, it’s safe to say that Thomas definitely did his very best for the team.
Transitioning from high school to college is always difficult, especially for wide receivers. Thomas was no exception to the rule, and he did not manage to see the field much his freshman year, catching three passes for 32 yards with a long of 20. It did not help matters that UConn was in the midst of losing nine games to start the season in the last year of the Big East as we knew it.
The 2014 campaign did not start off so well, either, but Thomas did play in that first game, catching two passes for 18 yards. He would see his first bit of extended action in the second half of the season, and the Connecticut offense looked to the big wideout to provide big plays.
He caught three passes for 57 yards and a touchdown against East Carolina, and followed that up with a four-catch, 83-yard performance for two touchdowns against UCF that snapped a five-game losing streak. Then, even with Army committing more attention to him after his breakout game, the then-sophomore produced five catches for 52 yards and a score against the Black Knights, and had nine catches over his next two games to end the year. It might not have been flashy, but he caught nearly 10 times more receptions for almost 10 times more yardage in the jump to his second year, providing definite signs of his growth.
Thomas continued to develop his craft, and it showed in his statistical jumps in his final two collegiate years. His junior campaign kicked off with a three-catch, 39-yard day against Villanova, and then, for the first time in nearly two years, UConn won consecutive games, thanks to his 83-yard day against Army.
Though the Huskies would fall to Missouri the week after, Thomas put in a fine performance of seven catches for 86 yards, followed by five catches for 78 yards against Navy. Slowly but surely, more and more trust was being placed into the hands of No. 5, and for good reason.
The wideout from Norfolk caught almost everything thrown in his direction, and his constant tenacity in fighting for jump balls allowed him to keep the chains moving when needed. It was a big reason for their win over UCF, when he had five catches for 62 yards and a score, and it most certainly mattered in their three-game winning streak towards the end of the season.
Following convincing wins over East Carolina and Tulane, then-No. 19 Houston rolled into town. Some may shrink at such a challenge, but Thomas decided that would be the day to announce his talents to the world. He tore up the Cougars defense every which way, starting with a 4-yard touchdown catch on the opening drive to give the Huskies an early lead and ending with a 45-yard bomb on a trick play that would end up being the decisive score. Thomas finished with seven catches for 108 yards as UConn became bowl eligible for the first time in five years. Thomas would finish his junior year with 54 catches for 719 yards and three touchdowns.
The 2016 campaign would produce the fruit of Thomas’s labor during his time at Connecticut. He started off with a bang against Maine, catching nine passes for 70 yards in a win.
From then on, it was the Thomas show. He caught 11 catches for 116 yards and a score against Navy before delivering six catches and 91 yards against Virginia.
After that, Thomas put together one of the most impressive streaks for a UConn receiver, posting over 100 receiving yards in six straight games, including a career-high 14 catches against Syracuse. His finest game in that stretch would come against UCF, when he caught nine passes for 165 yards. Even with the defense keying in on him, Thomas broke tackles for extra yards, got behind defenses, and generally made defensive backs miserable as he took full advantage of his 6-foot-1 frame.
In the last game of his collegiate career, Thomas became the first 100-reception receiver in UConn’s history with a nine-catch, 60-yard performance against Tulane. The school record was a testament to Thomas’s fortitude, as he kept playing through all the adversity until he forced people to pay attention. And when they did, he came through, and his efforts will be remembered for quite some time at UConn.
– David Chough
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Analyst