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NFL's loss is UCLA's gain as Thomas returns

May 14, 2001|By ERIC GALVAN, Sports Writer

At the end of the 2000-01 college football season, Imperial native and University of California, Los Angeles defensive MVP Robert Thomas faced a decision.

He could skip his senior season as a Bruins linebacker and head to the NFL, or he could stay one more season, get his degree, help his stock rise but risk serious injury.

It took the 20-year-old Thomas time to weigh his options, but in February, with only one week remaining to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft, he decided staying at UCLA for his senior season would be in his best interest.

"It was a tough decision to make. I thought about it a lot and weighed all of my options. I was only going to come out if I was going to be a sure first-round pick," said Thomas. "But in the end I decided the best thing for me would be to play my senior year. I also get to stay in school and get my degree (in history), which is very important to me and just enjoy my senior year."


Before Thomas made his decision, NFL draft experts figured him to go between the mid-first to early second round. He was considered one of the top two college inside linebackers in the nation following the 2000-01 season.

Looking at how April's draft played out, Thomas could have been taken in the first round.

Of the 31 selections in the opening round, five of the top 10 picks and 16 players overall were defensive players. Of those 16, only one linebacker was selected, University of Miami's Dan Morgan, an inside linebacker taken 11th by the Carolina Panthers.

Morgan and the 6-foot-2, 239-pound Thomas were considered the nation's top two inside backers.

"After the season I had all these agents calling me and telling me that I could be a first-rounder and that I was going to be a millionaire … at first, you kind of get caught up in all that," said Thomas. "But staying in college I get to have fun and I know that there's no worries at all.

"Now I get to focus on some goals I've set for myself. I want to help our defense be ranked as one of the top in the country, I want to win the Butkus (Award), and when I come out next year, I want to be one of the top players taken in the draft. It's always been a dream of mine to be a first-round draft pick," said Thomas, whose brother Stan was a first-round choice (21st overall) of the Chicago Bears in the early 1990s.

Last season Robert Thomas was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award for the nation's top collegiate linebacker and finished the year with a team-high 88 tackles, nine tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.

"We were extremely proud and pleased that Robert made the decision to come back for his senior season," said UCLA linebacker coach Marc Dove. "He's one of the leaders of this team and I think it was extremely important that he came back. He's a tremendous player who brings toughness and aggressiveness, but most importantly experience. He's played in a lot of big games and that experience factor is something that is very important."

The Bruins' defense will return eight starters from a year ago under new defensive coordinator Phil Snow.

"Defensively we'll be similar to what we've run in the past, but we're going to be more aggressive in style, making it more difficult for opposing offenses. We're going to blitz a lot more and that'll give Robert the opportunity to make more sacks," said Dove of Thomas, who only has 1.5 sacks for his career. "He's been relentless during workouts and if he can stay healthy we anticipate him to be real big this season. He'll have the opportunity to showcase his ability as an impact player."

Should Thomas have the season many are expecting, experts already have predicted Thomas to go as high as fifth overall in the NFL draft.

"Growing up I always visualized this happening for me," Thomas said. "Through it all, I've just stayed faithful and so far, my dreams and goals have been fulfilled."

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