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Referees haven’t called it all season, but it sure looks Elizabethton has been playing with 12 men on the field.
In reality, having a running back like Ethan Thomas is like starting each snap with an extra player.
Just ask Tennessee High. The 6-1, 215-pound junior rushed for 312 of his team’s 388 offensive yards in a 35-13 victory last week.
For the season, Thomas has rushed for 998 yards in five games and has pushed his career total close to 3,500. He has 11 touchdowns this year, and 34 for his career.
Despite those lofty numbers, Thomas hasn’t let success spoil him. He fits the mold as a genuinely good kid.
“I just think he’s so appreciative and so humble,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten. “He never comes across as being that guy who is cocky or arrogant or boasting on his skills. He takes coaching. And when people say good things about him, he doesn’t let it go to his head. Every day, he’s the same person.”
And when it’s time to produce, Thomas has shined.
“The thing I’m most pleased with Ethan is every big game we’ve played he comes through,” said Witten. “He shows up when the games matter the most.”
And Thomas shows up against defenses stacked against the run. He said part of the battle is mental.
“You go into the game saying you can run it,” said Thomas, who will help his team go up against Happy Valley on Friday night. “It’s just like a mindset. If you go in saying you can’t run it, you won’t be able to do it. We thought we could run it pretty well against Tennessee High.”
And that’s what happened, thanks to superior play by the other 10 guys on the offense.
“It’s just crazy how good they are doing their jobs,” said Thomas. “The line is blocking and getting me to the second level, and the receivers are blocking great. People are sticking on their blocks, and I’m just getting by. I couldn’t do anything without them.”
For Witten, having a running back like Thomas is like being the strongest guy at the weightlifting competition.
“Ethan is a beast,” said Witten. “He works like a beast, and he’s a workhorse.”
Of course, defenses already know this about Thomas because of his 2,097 yards rushing last season. They know who is getting the ball most of the time.
“I see guys creeping into the box,” said Thomas. “They know we’re a running team. They are bringing a lot of people to try to stop the run, but we can pass it, too. We just need to get into a rhythm passing. Sometimes we’re in such a rhythm running, we can’t get in a rhythm passing.”
Thomas started playing football in earnest when he was in the fourth grade. That’s when his dad was coaching his team in the Happy Valley peewee leagues.
One thing Thomas said he learned from his dad was not letting go of the football.
“He put it in my head not to fumble,” said Thomas. “That stuck with me. It eats me up so much when I drop the ball, even when I’m down.”
Thomas moved to Johnson City during middle school, but was already entrenched at Elizabethton and said Science Hill wasn’t an option.
“I lived in Elizabethton until my eighth grade year, and I didn’t see any point in leaving,” said Thomas.
Things started moving pretty quickly with the Cyclones as a freshman, and it really took off last season. Thomas said he didn’t envision such a quick start to his high school career.
This year, Thomas seems to have elevated his game another notch. Part of the success has come from avoiding overuse of his favorite technique.
“I mean, I like to run over people,” said Thomas with a laugh. “That’s a preference I have. But Coach (Travis) Hurley and Coach (Josh) Boatman helped me a lot on my cutting ability. They harped on cutting and not taking as many hits as I took last year. I feel better not trying to run over everybody and making people miss.”
Thomas said he’s learned from his favorite running back, Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson.
“He’s just a good running back,” said Thomas. “He’s a great person, and you never see him get in trouble. I’ve tried to model myself behind him.”
As for the rest of this season, Thomas said the Cyclones aren’t overwhelmed by the potential daunting task ahead in a loaded Class 4A postseason.
“I have confidence beyond belief,” said Thomas.
However, first things first, he said.
“We need to take Happy Valley like we’re playing in the state championship,” said Thomas. “The worst thing you can do in football is get a big head. We need to focus on Happy Valley like we did Science Hill or Tennessee High.”
Through the years, Thomas said his dad has been his biggest influence.
“He’s been there all of my life, of course,” said Thomas. “He has taught me the basic stuff, or I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to be anything.”
Thomas also runs track, competing in the 100, 200, 4 x 100 and long jump events. And he’s a top-notch student with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Good grades will only help when colleges come calling next year.
“Any school is good, but I want to play Division I,” said Thomas. “I need to get my speed lower, and I need to cut better. Flexibility is a key, too.”