Prep Insider: Thomas stepping up to lead Detroit King

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ambry Thomas grabbed Dequan Finn’s short pass near midfield, broke a tackle and sprinted down the left sideline for a 64-yard touchdown less than two minutes into King’s 46-0 rout of Osborn in Detroit Public School League football Friday afternoon.

Thomas, a four-star receiver/defensive back, said prior to the season: “We’re looking to repeat, go 14 and 0, and it’s going to be even better this year when we do it because we have a younger team. And with our coach gone everybody thinks we’re going to fall off and all, but we’re just going to come back and fight harder.”

Thomas (6-foot, 175 pounds) and his teammates have dedicated the season to Dale Harvel, who died of a heart attack this past summer. Harvel guided undefeated King to the Division 2 state championship last year, capped by a dramatic 40-38 comeback victory over Lowell at Ford Field.

Tyrone Spencer, defensive coordinator under Harvel, took over as head coach and has King playing hard and focused, backing up Thomas’ words.

And, Thomas has become a strong leader, making sure King made a statement in Week 1 with a dominating 39-0 win over Southfield A&T, ranked No. 5 in The News preseason Super 20 poll.

King was ranked No. 19 heading into the season, but losing a half dozen Division 1 players, including such Power Five conference players Donnie Corley (Michigan State), Lavert Hill (Michigan) and Martell Pettaway (West Virginia) does leave reason for concern.

Instead, Thomas has led and his teammates have followed all the way to a 5-0 start and a No. 4 ranking for King, which has a PSL East Division showdown at top-ranked Cass Tech (5-0) at noon Saturday.

“Ambry’s such a special talent and he’s been a pleasure to have as a leader,” Spencer said.

“He’s been both a vocal leader and also a leader by his play and the kids really respond to him. Last year, I don’t know if we really had a real vocal leader. He’s just doing things the right way and with our team as young as it is, it’s so important to have him in that role.

“I remember tossing him in at defensive back in the opener against Port Huron (22-10 win) his sophomore year — another kid was banged up — and he returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown on his first play, and I thought, ‘Did that really happen?’ He’s just a phenomenal athlete.”

King has outscored its opponents by a 243-6 margin with its lone points allowed in a 39-6 win over Detroit Central in Week 2. It will enter the showdown coming off consecutive shutouts of Southeastern (60-0), Western (59-0) and Osborn.

“It’s been the coaching,” Thomas said of the staff, led by Spencer and offensive coordinator Terel Patrick. “They have been more interactive at practice since they know we don’t have as many talented players. They have to really coach up the younger kids and when the younger kids see me do something right, it’s easy for them to just follow in my footsteps.

“I take a lot of pride in my role this year because I know there’s only a few of us that have been around the program for three or four years and I’m one of those guys. The younger kids don’t really know what King football is about yet so we have to teach them.”

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Finn, a sophomore, has played well at quarterback and spread the ball around to Thomas, Christian Chatman and sophomore Darrell Wyatt. The ground game has been led by senior Kevin Willis, who has used his 4.5 speed (40-yard dash) to score on a 54-yard run following a fumble to give King a 12-0 lead over Osborn just 21/2 minutes into the game.

Finn has completed 28 of 44 passes for 631 yards and nine TDs, and run for five more scores. Willis has rushed for 477 yards and six TDs on 53 carries. Thomas has seven receptions for 307 yards and four TDs and also has returned two punts back for scores.

“Kevin has stepped up and it’s really his role now and he’s doing a great job,” said Thomas. “I think Dequan’s going to be a top recruit. He just has to trust his receivers a little bit more going forward.”

And, King’s defense has much more than just Thomas, who has been offered by multiple major powers, including Michigan and Michigan State. It has Kent State-bound linebacker Cepeda Phillips and 6-0, 295-pound tackle Damani Green. It also has size and speed on the edge in 6-4, 200-pound junior Damond Carter and 6-7, 260-pound senior Traveon Orr.

Thomas knows he will have to be at the top of his game Saturday while going up against five-star Cass Tech receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.

“It’s going to be a great matchup,” Thomas said. “He’s a great player and I’ve went up against him numerous times during camp season and now we get to showcase our ability to the city.

“I know our team will come to play. We won’t be backing down to nobody. We have to get a good start on them early because they are more talented. We have to come out, be more aggressive and have less mistakes.”

King held a ceremony for Thomas on Thursday to announce he’s officially a 2017 U.S. Army All-American and will be playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Jan. 7 in San Antonio. He then had two TD receptions in the win over Osborn.

Thomas plans to take his official visits after the season. He has yet to name his top five schools, but says Michigan and Michigan State are in the running.

Tracy happy to be back

Big things were expected from Johnny Tracy as quarterback of Walled Lake Western.

Tracy had an outstanding 7-on-7 season during the summer after transferring from Birmingham Brother Rice. Then, just prior to the start of the season, he suffered a shoulder injury and missed the first three games.

He has since returned and played well while operating Western’s spread offense, throwing for 205 yards and a pair of TDs in a 40-21 win over Waterford Kettering Friday — after completing 18 of 28 for 299 yards and four TDs in a 43-8 rout over rival Walled Lake Central in Week 4.

“It felt great to be back,” Tracy said. “I never realized how much I missed it until I wasn’t able to play. I had a small tear in my labrum. It wasn’t that bad, but I wanted to take care of it so it wouldn’t be a problem long-term.

“I did a lot of PT (physical therapy), did a lot of things to strengthen my shoulder back up. I also tried to help Cody (White) in practice, teach him the quarterback position, making his reads and things, the same thing in games. I wasn’t surprised he did well at quarterback. He’s a great athlete and when you put the ball in his hands, he’ll make things happen.”

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White, a Michigan State commit, has moved back to receiver after doing a strong job filling in for Tracy. White threw for 171 yards and four TDs and ran for a score in the first half of a season-opening 41-14 win over Farmington, and led a winning drive in Week 2, throwing a 29-yard TD strike to Justin Thomas with 37 seconds left in a 33-30 win over Canton.

“I’d say I was 85 percent for the Central game and 90 percent this past week,” Tracy said of his shoulder.

He knows he is fortunate to play on an offense that has multiple weapons in White, Thomas, Kameron Ford and Jack Dodge.

“It’s great, a dream for any quarterback, especially with me coming back and not being 100 percent,” Tracy said. “It’s helped me out a lot. They are all great receivers and it’s eased my transition even more while coming back.”

Dunaway getting close

Carter Dunaway hopes to get back on the field Saturday night when Birmingham Brother Rice plays host to two-time defending Division 3 state champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.

It’s been a tough senior season for Dunaway, who suffered a broken hand in the opener against Birmingham Seaholm, then had his scholarship offer pulled by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

“I plan on getting my cast off on Wednesday so I think my best-case scenario would be playing against Orchard Lake,” said Dunaway, a 6-6, 230-pound tight end/defensive end. “I was going up for a pass in the first quarter against Seaholm, went up high for it, came down and just went down awkward and fell on top of it. It was just a freak thing, but nothing I could have done differently.

“It’s been tough to have to watch. I was pretty distraught, but my teammates and family were there to pick me up and make sure I got through it. You’re going to face adversity in life and they’ve all picked my spirits up even though it’s been tough. I can’t wait to get back, done a lot of running so I can contribute right away when I get back.”

Dunaway accepted Harbaugh’s offer to play at Michigan in April of 2015, planning to play for the Wolverines with his older brother Jack, who made the team as a preferred walk-on.

“(Harbaugh) said with the injury and everything and with the amount of tight ends that he already has, he said it would probably be in the best interest to take me as a preferred walk-on,” said Dunaway. “He said he didn’t want to use a scholarship on another tight end, which is understandable I guess. It was tough to take. I’m not closing any doors with Michigan yet or any other schools. I’m going to consider all my options, but that’s pretty much how it went down.

“It’s tough, but I’ll get through it. I wanted to play at Michigan ever since I knew that I wanted to play football in college. I was looking forward to playing with my brother and my dad played at Michigan, too, actually played with Coach Harbaugh for a year.”

Dunaway has multiple Big Ten offers, including Nebraska, Indiana and Purdue, while Syracuse, Illinois and Colorado have called since Harbaugh pulled his offer off the table. He is also considering Ivy League schools since he has a 4.37 and plans to study in the medical field.