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Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas discusses the Alabama receivers and his future with the Wolverines. The Detroit News

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Winter Garden Fla. – Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas likes to have fun when he plays football and seems to have a similar amount enjoyment playing cat and mouse with reporters.

The Wolverines arrived in Orlando on Thursday and held their first practice at West Orange High on Friday as they continue preparations for the New Year’s Day Citrus Bowl against Alabama. Thomas, who leads the team with three interceptions, and Lavert Hill and the rest of Michigan’s secondary will have an incredible challenge facing the Crimson Tide’s three top receivers, all considered possible first-round NFL Draft picks.

Thomas, who spent much of July in the hospital with colitis and lost a considerable amount of weight, was able to regain the weight on his way to a quick recovery and was able to not only play this fall but make a significant impact. After practice in Florida, he seemed to indicate he would be returning for the 2020 season. Then he altered the response and said he would have a decision after the bowl game.

“I’m out here right now practicing with the team,” Thomas said. “I’m back, put it like that, I’m back. I’m with my guys to lead my team to a good year next year.”

Uncertain whether that was definitive, Thomas was asked if he’s still considering his immediate future. Defensive end Kwity Paye announced Thursday night he will return for his final season.

“It was never no decision,” said Thomas, who has not requested an NFL grade. “I ain’t said nothing out there. It was just assumed I’m coming back.”

Then it turned into a playful banter, and Thomas confused the matter when asked if he has weighed the pros and cons of staying at Michigan or moving on. After last season, cornerback David Long decided to head to the NFL while Hill chose to return.

“Nah, I’m not thinking about that right now,” Thomas said. “If I did come to a decision it would be after this game, honestly. A great group of receivers, why not? I’m not thinking about none of that right now.

“I’m here right now, that’s all that matters."

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Again, keeping things light, Thomas was asked if his decision will come immediately after the game.

“We going to see how the game goes,” he said, laughing. “They’ve got first-rounder, first-rounder, first-rounder, and I’ve got to do my thing. Why not?”

What is known is that Alabama does have an explosive group of receivers that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh described as “the best group of receivers I’ve seen in, maybe, ever.”

They are DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and they have helped the Crimson Tide to the nation’s No. 3 passing offense, averaging 343.5 yards. Alabama averages 513.3 yards of total offense.

Smith is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds and leads the team in receiving with 1,200 yards (10th nationally), and his 13 touchdowns rank six nationally. The 6-1, 192-pound Jeudy has 959 yards and nine touchdowns, and Ruggs had 719 yards and seven TD. Jaylen Waddle also has 553 yards and six TD.

The Wolverines enter the game ranked fifth nationally in passing yards allowed (173.8), but in a loss to Ohio State in the final regular-season game, the Buckeyes had 15 receptions for 313 yards and four touchdowns.

Thomas and Hill said they’re looking forward to matching up against Alabama.

“Yeah, I’m juiced up,” Thomas said, laughing. “I’m ready to go no matter what. All big games I’m ready for. Just got to get this energy out to the team, and we’re going to be ready.”

One asset the Wolverines have tapped into is first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who was the co-offensive coordinator at Alabama last year and coached the receivers.

“I talked to him from time to time because he coached all of them,” Hill said. “I’ve got a little bit of something, that’s about it.”

Did he pick up just a little from Gattis or a lot?

“I can’t really say,” Hill said, laughing. “You’ll have to see Janua. 1.”

Thomas went against most of the receivers coming out of high school at the Nike Opening and is familiar with their styles.

“Great group of guys,” Thomas said. “Three out of four are first-rounders. It’s a challenge, but I bet on myself every time, y’all know that, and I’m betting on my guys. We’ve just got to come ready to play. It’s a great team, a great opportunity and we’ve got to seize the moment.”

Hill said the Alabama receivers are athletic and fast.

“Great catching ability,” Hill said. “But I feel like we’ve got a great group of guys, too.

Several Michigan players mentioned how a game like this against Alabama, a team that typically is in the four-team national playoff, can only improve the draft stock for eligible players. Both dismissed that talk and said they’re focused on the game, and that’s it.

“It’s a great challenge for us,” Hill said. “We’re going to go out there and work hard and do what we’ve been doing, stopping folks and having fun and making plays.”

The defensive backs are mostly excited about knowing they’re going to be integral in defending Alabama.

“In our DB room we’ve been stressing it,” Thomas said. “We go against Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones every day, all day. You’re not about to tell me we’re not facing high-caliber receivers also."

Thomas said preparing for big games is about taking care of all the film study and prep work, of course, but it’s mostly about the players focusing on themselves. 

“At the end of the day, it’s you versus you,” Thomas said. “That’s the message we gotta get to my teammates. It’s a mindset thing. If you win in your head, you won the first part of the battle. I truly believe that and that’s just the message we’ve got to spread in the locker room.”

Citrus Bowl

MICHIGAN VS. ALABAMA

Kickoff: Wednesday, 1 p.m. Camping World Stadium, Orlando

TV/radio: ABC/950 AM

Records: Michigan 9-3, Alabama 10-2

Line: Alabama by 10

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