Mobile, Ala. — Lawrence Thomas was supposed to be the next big thing.
A four-star recruit from Detroit Renaissance, Thomas was the top-ranked player in Michigan by Rivals.com in 2011. He had offers from Alabama, Notre Dame, USC and pretty much every top school except Texas.
He chose to go to Michigan State hoping he and other Detroit-area players could help the Spartans improve as a program. Ultimately, Thomas reached that goal, but his college years could have been better.
As a true freshman in 2011, he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder before redshirting. In 2013, he played in just seven games due to a lower back injury before finally become a full-time starter on the defensive line in the past two years.
“That’s what made me the strong person I am today,” he said.
Now, after the injuries as well as multiple position changes, Thomas is on the doorstep of achieving his dream of playing in the NFL, and he’s hoping to use the Senior Bowl to convince teams he’s worthy of a draft pick.
Versatility has been a commonly-used word in Thomas’ interviews with NFL teams this week, he said. In high school, Thomas played running back, wide receiver, tight end, defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, punter and kicker.
“My father always told me, ‘Learn as many positions as you can because you never know when there will be an opportunity to step up,’ ” he said.
When he arrived at Michigan State, coaches tried to determine which position was his best fit. After working at linebacker as a true freshman, Thomas moved to defensive end in the preseason in 2012. He also played fullback that year, blocking for star running back Le’Veon Bell.
After the back injury in 2013, Thomas became a permanent fixture up front in 2014, starting all 13 games at defensive tackle and finishing with 30 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and three sacks.
Last year, he moved again, starting all 14 games at defensive end and finishing with 38 tackles, five for loss, three sacks and five pass break-ups.
Thomas weighed in Monday at 281 pounds and measured about 6-foot-4, which probably makes him a defensive end in the NFL, according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
“His key, I think, is to show he can play outside in the base defense and stop the run and kick inside on sub packages,” Mayock said. “I think if he can do that, he’ll help himself.”
Former Michigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who’s also participating in the Senior Bowl, said he and Thomas became close during their time in East Lansing. Burbridge was also a four-star recruit, and he and Thomas went through similar adversity with injuries and some people saying they were busts.
Then both players closed their college careers on a high note and hope to shine this week.
“Just showing that I am versatile, I’ve got great explosion, I’m going to fly around to the ball,” Thomas said of his Senior Bowl goals. “You’re going to see me be active and make plays. That’s one thing I want to show these coaches.”
For Thomas, the NFL dream always seemed in reach with how dominant he was in high school. His upbringing in Detroit still provides motivation, too, as he said there would be some nights when the lights weren’t on.
“Just seeing in my everyday life how I want better for myself and my family,” he said. “That’s the chip that I’ll always hold on my shoulder and will allow me to do better.”