EAST LANSING – Lawrence Thomas can easily see and put into words the progress of the Michigan State football program he joined in 2011.
“When I got in there we thought the Outback Bowl was a national championship,” Thomas said of a win over Georgia when he was a freshman, redshirting because of a shoulder injury. “The growth this program has had is just real amazing to see.”
The progress of Lawrence (LT) Thomas is easy to see within that program. Maybe not so easy outside it.
Those who follow recruiting know that Thomas was the top-ranked prospect in the state out of Detroit Renaissance, a middle linebacker with a “five-star” rating from some recruiting services. He is now a fifth-year senior with modest numbers at defensive end — 35 tackles, 41/2 for loss with three sacks — after a solid junior season at defensive tackle, a sophomore season plagued by a back injury and a redshirt freshman season at fullback.
That might not be “five-star” stuff. But the fact that the 6-foot-4, 305-pound, athletic Thomas has blended in as one of the guys also helps explain why MSU is 12-1, ranked No. 3 and preparing to play No. 2 Alabama (12-1) Thursday in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
This team has a lot of talented players. It also has 12 player-elected members of the leadership council each season, and the once-quiet Thomas is one of them.
“He’s a guy who’s completely unselfish. He’ll do whatever it takes to help our team win, and he’s shown that throughout his time here,” MSU senior linebacker and captain Darien Harris said of Thomas. “We see that and understand what it takes to be unselfish and understand what it takes to be a real team player and team leader, and he’s definitely done that.”
Going back to that redshirt freshman season in 2012, Thomas blocked for star running back Le’Veon Bell at fullback and even grabbed seven passes for 78 yards.
“It was an amazing experience to actually block for Le’ Bell,” Thomas said. “At that time I was going through position changes and everything, and he said, ‘While you’re over here you’ve just got to focus on fullback.’ That’s what I did.”
There have been no thoughts of returning to offense since then — “I don’t like getting hit, they can keep the ball out of my hands,” Thomas said — but he still thinks of another position.
“My heart is always linebacker, I still think I can play linebacker,” said Thomas, who was voted MSU’s most improved player last season after getting 30 tackles and three sacks at defensive tackle. “But right now I’m in love with D-line.”
The stars of that line are senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun and sophomore defensive tackle Malik McDowell, while Thomas has taken on the difficult task of replacing Marcus Rush. Thomas was among several Spartans who won their individual battles regularly and contributed to stuffing Ohio State’s rushing attack in MSU’s 17-14 win over the Buckeyes on Nov. 21.
That physicality as a run stopper is exactly what MSU needs from Thomas against Alabama and bruising back Derrick Henry.
“Our D-line as a whole has really stepped up the intensity the past half of the season,” MSU co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said, “and that’s Malik, that’s Shilique, that’s LT, that’s the whole crew.”
An NFL opportunity figures to be there for a guy who has played well on the interior and edge of MSU’s defensive line, but the focus is a career culmination that few college football players get to experience. Thomas said his father, Willis Lawrence, has been in his ear regularly to get him even more psyched about playing Alabama for a shot at an national title.
“I love games like this. These are the games you live for,” Thomas said. “As a child you see all the big games and I have an opportunity to play in one of those games. So I’m blessed.”
Contact Joe Rexrode: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @joerexrode. Check out his MSU blog at freep.com/heyjoe.
Matchup: No. 3 Michigan State (12-1, 8-1 Big Ten) vs. No. 2 Alabama (12-1, 8-1 SEC).
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Thursday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
Line: Crimson Tide by 91/2.
Meet Lawrence Thomas
Who: Michigan State senior defensive end.
Vitals: 6-4, 305 pounds.
School: Detroit Renaissance.
Last season: Named MSU’s most improved defensive player after recording 30 tackles at defensive tackle.
This season: Has 35 tackles, including 41/2 for loss and 3 sacks, in 13 starts at end.
Did you know? He caught seven passes for 78 yards playing fullback as a redshirt freshman.