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After breakout year at free safety, Washington State’s Skyler Thomas entering a new role with an open mind

UPDATED: Tue., April 16, 2019, 10:08 p.m.

Washington State  safety Skyler Thomas  returns an interception against Washington  on Nov. 23, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State safety Skyler Thomas returns an interception against Washington on Nov. 23, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Skyler Thomas is on the move.

Not to worry, the redshirt junior is still a defensive back on Washington State’s roster, proudly wearing the No. 25.

He isn’t going far, either. Depending on the formation, it’s only about 10 yards from where Thomas lined up last season as a free safety to the nickel position he’s poised to fill for the Cougars in 2019.

Alhough he’ll be asked to do a few different things within Tracy Claeys’ defense, Thomas can make this guarantee on the heels of his breakout sophomore season:

“I feel like I’m going to be the same player regardless,” he said Tuesday after the Cougars’ 12th spring practice. “I like to come down and be in the ‘run fit’ and make tackles, so I don’t feel like my position change will have any impact on how I play.

“I’m going to have a high motor regardless, and I’m just going to get to the ball.”

Peyton Pelluer eventually won the Cougars’ tackling crown last season, registering 98 in 13 games. Another linebacker, Jahad Woods, came in second with 82. Then there was Thomas, not too far back in third with his 76 tackles – 46 solo and 30 assisted.

The odds of Thomas finishing in the top five on the team’s tackle chart couldn’t have been too substantial when the 2018 season began, especially seeing that the 5-foot-9, 185-pound defensive back played sparingly as a redshirt freshman, with five tackles in just two games.

Naturally, the opportunities for Thomas would increase as he inherited a more integral role one year later – starting free safety – but even through four games of the 2018 season, it was startling to see him leading the Cougars with 29 tackles.

Now Thomas shifts from one station in the defensive secondary to another. Safeties coach Kendrick Shaver urged the fourth-year player to give nickel a try when WSU opened spring camp and Thomas agreed without much reluctance.

“We had been talking about it for a while and he just said he wants to see me out there, try me out there,” Thomas said. “See how I flow, see how I like it.”

So far, so good.

“He’s explosive and he’s a good blitzer,” Claeys said. “But at the same time, if you watch the whole thing, we’re moving everybody everywhere there and trying to just see where we can fit everybody and have the most depth.

“I think we were extremely fortunate a year ago. We stayed injury-free for the most part back there, so we’d like to have a little bit more depth.”

The Cougars are losing a two-year starter at nickel in Hunter Dale and Thomas seems best equipped to fill the role. Playing as a hybrid safety/linebacker, the nickel is usually someone who tackles better than your average defensive back and plays the pass better than your typical linebacker.

Thomas’ 76 tackles in 2018 were complemented by two interceptions, three pass breakups and one tackle for loss.

“We’ve got speedy guys out there getting after it like Skyler, so he’s going to be a real good fit in there,” cornerback Marcus Strong said. “He can play man; he can get after the ball.”

It’s still been an adjustment. Thomas was expecting to spend spring camp honing the things he already knew as a safety. Now he’s learning completely new concepts for the first time as a nickel.

“I just couldn’t get the calls mixed up as the safety calls,” he said. “Then I had to take different angles when I’m tackling and approaching the ball carrier. Then from nickel I blitz too, so learning all the blitzes and everything.”

Dale returned to Pullman for WSU’s Pro Day two weeks ago and dropped by a few practices and scrimmages to watch his old teammates and mentor his successor.

“I was just having him coach me up, asking him about certain things to look at, certain things he would do in situations,” Thomas said. “… So say if I’m blitzing and the tackle’s kicking kind of hard, should I try to beat him on the outside or should I try to countermove him? Just stuff like that.

“I’m ready for whatever. … I’ll do whatever they need me to do.”

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