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Versatility, explosiveness makes JK Thomas Player of the Year

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RUNNING TO DAYLIGHT: Marion’s running back JK Thomas amassed more than 1,500 yards on the ground and scored 26 total touchdowns in helping the Giants to a Class 4A final fourth berth and a 13-1 season. Thomas is the Chronicle-Tribune’s 2018 Player of the Year.
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VERSATILE THREAT: JK Thomas avoids a Indianapolis Tech defender as he looks for a receiver in a game at Dick Lootens Stadium on Oct. 5. Thomas completed 11-of-16 passes for three TDs in limited snaps at quarterback for Marion in the 2018 season.

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

There were few scarier sights for opposing defenses and special teams than seeing Marion junior JK Thomas with the football in his hands and any open space around him.

More often than not, it meant big chunks of yardage for the Giants. The scenario frequently ended with No. 12 weaving, spinning and sprinting past the opposition, breaking tackles along the way if required. A little bit of daylight for Thomas usually translated to touchdowns for the Giants, and the 5-foot-8, 180-pound dynamo had his hands in 29 TDs in 2018.

As part of an offense that featured numerous explosive playmakers, Thomas was an atom bomb. His versatility, strength and athleticism meant Marion coach Craig Chambers could line him up anywhere on the field and good things would follow.

Though listed as a running back, Thomas took snaps at quarterback, wide receiver and was the Giants’ primary kick returner, accounting for multiple touchdowns in each of those capacities.

With more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and helping Marion to a 13-1 record, a North Central Conference championship and the program’s first sectional and regional titles since 1990, Thomas is the Chronicle-Tribune’s Grant County Player of the Year.

While Thomas has displayed his explosiveness for both of his first two years of varsity football, Chambers was as excited about Thomas’ growth off the field as his performance on it. 

“He’s become a leader. He was kind of a leader the first couple of years but he led more on the field,” Chambers said. “On and off the field this year he did a great job as far as his actions. I know we played extremely better when he practiced extremely well. He was motivated and motivating the kids in practice and we played well.”

“He’s a little small as far as height, he plays big, though,” he added. “He plays with a lot of confidence. A lot of it was cocky at the beginning but we can take that cockiness and make it confidence and just kind of build on that. Spending time with him, explaining to him how to be a leader, how to talk to different guys. He did a great job talking to his line and telling them they did a great job blocking for him. They wanted to go to war for this guy and that’s what you want out of your running back.”

Thomas averaged more than 10 yards every time he ran the ball and picked up 1,537 yards on the ground on 150 carries. He ran for 18 touchdowns. He was also credited for eight catches for 162 yards and another four touchdowns and had three punt returns and one kickoff return for scores.

Thomas’ 26 scores were just three shy of tying the Marion High School record of 29 set by Tony Sheron in 1997.

Though not asked to throw a lot, Thomas proved efficient and effective at quarterback as well, completing 11-of-16 passes for 159 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions.   

“Running back is really my favorite because you can just get the ball and run to daylight,” Thomas said. “After (the quarterback) says go and I see the ball, my first instinct is to find the first hole and hit it without any hesitation. Everybody tells me they don’t know how I do it or how I see a guy coming, it just happens, it’s my reflex of where everybody is at.”

Instincts and reflexes that go hand-in-hand with the ability to accelerate quickly, cut on a dime and reach a top speed that leaves most defenders as spectators are just a few characteristics Thomas displayed nearly every Friday night in the fall.

Thomas scored touchdowns in all but one of the 12 games he played in. Of the 26 touchdowns he scored, 16 were on plays that went for more than 40 yards. One of his touchdown passes was a 51-yard strike to Marion’s normal starting quarterback Keshaun Taylor in the Giants’ 49-35 win in the opening round of the sectional against Pendleton Heights.

When teams kicked the ball to Thomas it was often a mistake and the three punt returns and one kickoff return he took for touchdowns accounted for 254 yards on those four touches alone. 

“Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, we’d line him up and get him one-on-one and we knew he was going to run past the guy and catch the ball,” Chambers said of Thomas. “There’s just a lot of things this kid can do. You hate to see his season end like it did but he has another year so we’re excited about him coming back.”

Thomas season was cut short by two games compared to his teammates. A hard but harmless looking tackle in the fourth quarter of Marion’s sectional championship win over Mississinewa on Nov. 2 left Thomas lying on the ground writhing in pain. 

“After the play happened and I went down, I tried to get back up and I just couldn’t,” Thomas said. “To this day it still hurts to look back at that play and know I couldn’t come back. The first guy tackled me from behind and my foot just got caught from behind and it was stuck behind me.”

The result was a broken ankle, the end of his season and the Giants missing their most significant playmaker in their regional win against Mooresville and their only loss in the 4A semistate at Evansville Central.  

“When he first went down I thought it was one of the typical cramps or something that wasn’t serious.” Chambers said. “When I went on the field I seen it was a lot more serious. At that particular time, as a coach you’ve got to continue to coach but in the back of your mind you just hate it for the kid, being (three) touchdowns away from tying the record and him going deep in the playoffs with us.

“He would have been a thrill to watch and something we definitely would have loved to have him going deep like we did,” he added. “Khalid Stamps did an amazing job for us. Khalid is a power runner and a quick runner in a burst. ... We had a couple pitches to Khalid (in semistate) where if it’s JK in the game, he probably scores them. He definitely would have made a difference if he would have been there.”

Late in the season Thomas even added more to his tool box when he assumed the punting duties for the Giants. Thomas punted against Delta in the sectional semifinals and averaged nearly 40 yards a punt against Ole Miss and twice pinned the Indians inside their own 20. 

“He had been doing a little punting in practice and we saw that he was explosive plus we knew that he could play quarterback,” Chambers said. “With us practicing fakes and different things in practice we saw him punt the ball and he did it pretty well.”

As for now, Thomas is just looking forward to getting healed and healthy and helping the Giants pursue a state title on the basketball court.

“I can walk now (in a boot) and (the doctor) said I should be back in warmups in January after break,” Thomas said.

Chambers is also looking forward to seeing Thomas, who has a career-high of 41 points set on the hardwood last season, get back to being the dynamic athlete he is.  

“By fall he’ll definitely be back full throttle and they said he may be back playing basketball in January,” Chambers said. “He’s a speed guy, a speedy recovery guy so I’m just excited to see him back on the court first.”