UNLV hasn’t scored a punt-return touchdown in 16 years, so if the 2018 Rebels find themselves in a close game and in need of a big special-teams play, don’t be surprised if Lexington Thomas is called upon to make something happen.
As a running back, Thomas is a breakaway waiting to happen. The lightning-quick Houston native scored seven touchdowns of 40 yards or longer as a junior last season, and he racked up 6.3 yards per carry. So in the spirit of finding ways to put the ball in his hands by any means necessary, the UNLV coaching staff has been using the early part of training camp to work Thomas into the special-teams mix, hoping to utilize his explosive ability in the return game.
Special teams coach Travis Burkett said he prefers having designated kickoff and punt returners, but that using an elite position player like Thomas once in a while makes sense in clutch situations.
“We’ve been having Lex catch kicks and punts since March,” Burkett said. “Lex is a guy we’ve talked about as a special player, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. … In spot situations, you put a special guy back there, it’s going to change the game.”
Thomas has never been used as a punt returner in college, but he returned kickoffs regularly as a freshman, compiling 250 yards on 12 returns (20.8 yards per return). As a sophomore, he was asked to return only two kickoffs (44 yards, 22.0 per attempt). Last year he became the clear No. 1 running back and didn’t return a single kick.
After Thursday’s practice, head coach Tony Sanchez said freshman receiver Tyleek Collins and junior receiver Brandon Presley were currently “leading the way” as punt returners, while Collins, Thomas, Presley and junior receiver Darren Woods were all options as kick returners.
Thomas has worked with both the punt and kickoff units in camp this year, and he’s all for doing anything to help the team.
“Coach Sanchez told me during the spring that they’re going to use me at certain times,” Thomas said. “If they need to try to make a big play, they’ll put me back there. Situational football is all it is. Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do it.”
Burkett said Thomas’ skills should translate more obviously to kickoffs, but that he could be utilized in punt-return situations as well.
“Running-back training translates a little bit more to kick returns in general,” Burkett said. “We’ve all seen Lex play — he’s shifty and he’s small, so for punt returns he has the ability to really throw the brakes on, pull the parachute out, let a guy fly by and then reverse field 180 degrees.”
College football’s new kickoff rule could also play a part in how often Thomas is used in the return game. Under the new rule, the receiving team can call for a fair catch on a kickoff inside the 25-yard line and the ball will be placed at the 25. Last year, UNLV returned only 36 kickoffs, with the rest going for touchbacks. Punt returns were even rarer, as the Rebels recorded just nine (including one return that came on a blocked punt). The new rule could drive return attempts even lower, with little incentive to run back a kick unless the receiving team needs to make a big play late in a game.
Even if he only gets his hands on a limited number of returns, Thomas is ready to make every play count.
“It’s the same thing [as playing running back],” Thomas said. “You’ve still got to read your blocks. It’s still a play. With special teams it’s catching the ball. It’s high, and the trajectory of the ball can get tricky sometimes. Kicks, I’m very comfortable doing. It took me a while to get comfortable catching punts, but I’m comfortable now. It’s second nature now.”