September 1, 2011 in Sports

Whitworth’s Thomason has chased his limits since an early age

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Whitworth’s Cailen Thomason led the Northwest Conference in kick returns the past two seasons and is a standout cornerback for the Pirates.
(Full-size photo)

Cailen Thomason started working on his speed at an early age.

“Honestly it probably goes back to when I was 6 years old,” the Whitworth senior cornerback said. “My mom will tell you I’ve never slowed down. I was always the wild one she couldn’t control. I had bruises all the time; cuts and scrapes, from trying to keep up with my older brother (Drew).

“Every single day I was trying to keep up. He was 2 years older and if I didn’t keep up I didn’t feel good. I played on his soccer team and everybody was 2 years older than I was.”

The science of enhancing speed – weight training, agility drills, plyometrics, etc. – entered the picture in high school. Thomason was known more as a standout running back than as a cornerback at Mountain View High in Vancouver, Wash. His goal was to improve his physical abilities while building up his chances of playing college football.

It worked, as Thomason was recruited by several Northwest Conference schools and Western Washington. He joined Whitworth’s program as a receiver, but moved when there was an opening in the defensive backfield two weeks into his freshman year. He arrived at Whitworth with a hand-timed 40-yard time of 4.63 seconds. His most recent timing of 4.49 was a personal best.

But those are just numbers.

“In an open 100-yard dash I’m pretty good,” he said, “but I’m stronger changing directions.”

Thomason admits speed training has been a lengthy process yielding seemingly tiny, incremental gains. Those fractional improvements, however slight they may appear, can be the difference between deflecting a pass and making an interception, between making a tackle and watching an opposing receiver race toward the end zone.

“It definitely takes a long time,” said the 5-foot-9, 172-pounder who will become a rare four-year starter this fall. “It’s really more of a lifestyle. If I’m playing basketball with my friends, I’m always running as hard as I can. It’s a competitive thing; that’s what really contributes the most to improving as an athlete. Doing multiple sports, I wrestled, I did track. Wrestling really helps with your agility and it works every muscle in your body. That played a big part.”

The cornerback position demands speed, but that’s just part of the job description.

“The nice thing is he has the athletic ability but also the mental framework,” Pirates coach John Tully said. “We think he has a chance to be one of the best defensive players in the league.”

Added Thomason: “If you have the ability, you’re going to be OK, that’s going to save you from getting burned for that 70-yard touchdown over your head. But you have to use your head as well and study the opponent. If you know what’s going to happen before it happens from learning their tendencies, obviously you’re going to react that much quicker.”

Perhaps the most concentrated collection of speed on the field occurs on kick returns. Both teams utilize their swiftest players – typically cornerbacks, running backs, receivers, safeties and linebackers – trying to win the field-position battle.

Thomason has led the conference in kick returns the past two seasons with averages of 23.5 yards and 24.2 yards, respectively. He hasn’t reached the end zone yet, but his 80-yard return two years ago put Whitworth’s offense on the doorstep.

“It’s been a wonderful experience here, but it’s not the same as high school where you’re always the one carrying the ball and scoring the touchdowns,” he said. “It can be intimidating at first, guys flying at you as fast as they can, but it’s also exciting. You can get hurt by one of them, but that’s not what I’m thinking about when I have the ball in my hands. I’m excited to get back there and make a play.”

The same philosophy applies when Whitworth chooses to blitz and leave the corners in man-to-man coverage.

“It’s a little bit of, ‘OK, I need to be a little worried because I’m all alone and this is my man and if he catches it it’s my fault,’ ” Thomason said. “But it’s also good because it eliminates the thinking. You don’t have to worry about passing your man into another zone. You’re on your man and you can play football.”

Sept. 3at Chapman, 7 p.m.
Sept. 10Pomona-Pitzer, 1 p.m.
Sept. 17Redlands, 1 p.m.
Sept. 24Menlo, 1 p.m.
Oct. 8Pacific Lutheran, 1 p.m.
Oct. 15at Lewis & Clark, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 22Pacific, 1 p.m.
Oct. 29at Willamette, 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 5Linfield, 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 12at Puget Sound, 1 p.m.

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