East Lansing — Lawrence Thomas can’t wait for the first hit and the first twinges of pain.
This is the moment he has waited for his entire life. Michigan State’s senior defensive lineman, who has played multiple positions since arriving at MSU in 2011, is now in position to compete for a national championship.
The third-ranked Spartans face No. 2 Alabama in the Eve Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Thomas anticipates the type of game that typifies his stay at MSU — tough, grueling and unpredictable.
“It is going to be a fist fight,” said Thomas, 6-4 and 306 pounds. “They are a great group and we are a great group. We are going to come in with the mindset that we are not going to get beat and I am sure they are coming in with the same mindset.”
Thomas was a highly-recruited player out of Detroit Renaissance — the No. 1 player on The Detroit News Blue Chip list — but quickly became a man without a position. Actually, it’s more accurate to call him a man with too many positions. At MSU he has played linebacker, fullback, nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end. He says his favorite position is linebacker, but says he was prepared to play anywhere during youth football.
In little league football, Thomas played wide receiver, running back, kicker and linebacker.
“It wasn’t really a challenge because of all the positions I played in little league,” he said. “Coaches said it’s good you are learning all these positions because you never know what is going to pan out in the future. So when it came to college and there was talk of position change it was nothing for me to do it. I was going to take the coaching and do what it takes for my team to be successful.”
Thomas has blocked for Le’Veon Bell and has chased Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott during his career.
“I felt like it was God’s plan,” Thomas said of the twists and turns in his MSU career. “I just took it day by day and had good faith and belief and kept pushing and kept grinding mentally and physically. And I am in this blessed position now.”
There were tough moments as Thomas tried to figure out his place with the Spartans. He received strong support from his family and friends in Detroit, along with Spartans Chris Norman, who he viewed as a big brother, and Mylan Hicks and William Gholston.
“They told me I’ve got to stay level-headed,” Thomas said. “Don’t let the media hype get to you. You always have to stay focused and keep your eye on the prize. “
Now Thomas is a leader the young players look up to, particularly defensive lineman Malik McDowell, who like Thomas came in with plenty of hype and fanfare when he went through the recruiting process. Now Thomas is passing along to McDowell what he learned from former Spartans.
“He is just a playmaker,” linebacker Darien Harris said of Thomas, who has 35 tackles this season, 41/2 tackles for loss, five passes defensed and three sacks. “He is competitive and unselfish. He does what he can to help our team win. We see it and understand what it takes to be unselfish and to be a real team player and leader. And he definitely believes in that.”
Thomas is simply passing along things he learned.
“I try to be a great leader,” he said. “I try to come in and set a great example.”
Thomas watched the Heisman Trophy ceremony and was happy to see Derrick Henry, who rushed for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns, win it. He views him as a tough matchup and is ready for the challenge of battling the Alabama offensive line. Thomas has NFL dreams, and what better way to put out game film than playing well against Alabama?
“Our job is to stop the run, so of course we are going to play hard, fast, downhill and play physical,” Thomas said. “We are excited to play the Heisman winner. We have a great game plan for him. We are ready to play smash-mouth football.”