Kobe Thomas spent his redshirt freshman football season in 2019 seeing time at four different spots — both guard and tackle positions — on the UAlbany offensive line.
“I kind of knew each position, in and out,” Thomas said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters, “except for center.”
As the season wore on, it became clear that Thomas would be asked to play that fifth and final spot as a redshirt sophomore. So, even in the midst of the Great Danes’ run to the FCS playoffs, Thomas went to school to learn how to play center.
“I kind of went under last year’s centers’ wing,” Thomas said. “They taught me some things, including how to communicate out there.”
It’s been more than 14 months since the learning process started, but as UAlbany has started its preparations for the spring season, the 6-foot-1, 284-pound Thomas is still slotted in to anchor the Great Danes’ line at center.
That is, if everything goes according to plan.
If it doesn’t, UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said, the fact that Thomas is more than comfortable at any other spot along the line makes him an absolutely invaluable piece in the trenches.
“We think he’s going to be an exceptionally good center,” Gattuso said. “The goal is to have him play center, but we know that if we have an injury across the front that Kobe’s able to go in, know it and execute it at any position.”
Thomas’ versatility makes him unique among most offensive linemen, Gattuso said, though there is someone comparable in the UAlbany locker room.
Great Danes assistant head coach and offensive line coach Jim Sweeney, a standout at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1980s who went on to play 16 NFL seasons and once started 158 consecutive games with the New York Jets, also played at all five spots along the line — and was even used as a short-yardage tight end — during his younger days.
For Thomas, the knowledge he’s gained from playing the other four spots on the line will make it easier to communicate and make adjustments on the field with a largely retooled UAlbany offensive line.
“Just knowing the offense from last year, playing all four positions in the game — all five, including practice — I understand our offense, what calls to make and how to communicate with our offensive line,” he said.
“I can try to help them as best as possible, be that coach on the field — because our Coach can’t play with us.”
Though only a redshirt sophomore, Thomas played in all 14 games in 2019 — he’s one of two returning offensive linemen to see significant action last season, along with senior Kassy Desir — and has embraced a leadership role on the line this spring.
“I’ve kind of got to take that senior role,” he said, “and lead our O-line in the right direction. I feel like by me knowing the offense better and communicating better, I’ve taken strides in being a better offensive lineman.”
Gattuso cited Thomas and Desir as anchors on the interior of the line through the early days of preseason camp, while a pair of bookends to the line may have emerged with graduate student Critt Johnson — a transfer from Virginia Military Institute — at left tackle and redshirt freshman Kevin Singer at right tackle.
That said, the exact depth chart along the line remains in flux, with Gattuso hopeful that the team’s first few days of full-contact work in pads will start to reveal a clearer picture.
“Hopefully, by the time we come out of the weekend and a scrimmage, we can start settling on our top seven or eight on the offensive line,” Gattuso said. “If we can get to that point, I’ll feel pretty good about them. It’s a very important group, and it’s a group of guys that, for us to be successful, they have to play well.”
One thing’s for sure, though. Whether he’s in his expected new spot at center or circumstances force him to one of his old, familiar spots, Thomas is the lineman Gattuso is expecting to lead the charge.
“Kobe’s growth in the last year or so has been fantastic,” Gattuso said. “He is without a doubt the leader of that group right now, and he’s doing a great job setting the tone for them. I have a lot of faith in what he’s doing and how contagious that can be for the rest of the offensive line.”