Coming up inches short of a safety and about 13 yards from a touchdown, Chauntez Thomas’ first consistent playing time for Northern Arizona brought an immediate impact.
Northern Arizona’s walk-on defensive end, a 2016 graduate of Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas, spent a year biding his time on the scout team before seeing significant playing time last week against Northern Colorado.
Thomas wasted little time breaking out, going in for a sack on the Bears’ second drive of the game. Bringing down Jacob Knipp just outside his own end zone, Thomas helped pin the Bears at their own 1-yard line and set the Lumberjacks’ offense on a short field, leading to the team’s first score about two minutes later.
“I had confidence as soon as I stepped on the field; I knew I was going to make plays period, because I’m just a playmaker, that’s how my dad raised me,” Thomas said. “As soon as I got that sack, my head got pumped up a little bit in the right way and I just kept on making plays -- it’s what I do.”
The freshman defensive end finished the game with two tackles for loss, the first-quarter sack, two quarterback hits and a 21-yard fumble recovery in the second quarter.
After Maurice Davison planted Hakeem Deggs in the flats, sending the ball bouncing back 10 yards, Thomas scooped up the fumble and sprinted toward the end zone before being tripped up by Knipp at the 13-yard line. Four plays later, Case Cookus hit William Morehand for a 10-yard touchdown to complete Northern Arizona’s 20 straight points to open the game.
Not listed on Northern Arizona’s two-deep depth chart entering last Saturday’s game, Thomas moved onto it ahead of this week’s meeting with Illinois State. Northern Arizona added eight defensive lineman in February's initial recruiting class announcement, remaking a position that lost nearly all of its key players. That left a door open for Thomas to fight his way into playing time during the offseason.
“I proved myself throughout practice, making plays in practice and the spring game,” Thomas said. “But as soon as I made that sack and as soon as I started making an impact, they were like, ‘Oh, man, this walk-on is something else.’ You hear the story about walk-ons, they are always a hidden secret, so I guess I am a hidden secret.”
Thomas’ quick impact on the field didn’t completely catch defensive coordinator Andy Thompson off guard, saying the freshman put in work in the past year leading up to last Saturday’s performance.
“He’s done a lot of preparation, he did the scout team last year, stayed here this summer and made a lot of plays last spring when he got his opportunity,” Thompson said. “He got his opportunity Saturday. He has made plays in scrimmage situations; early in camp he had a pick-six. I am really proud and excited for him, and I want to keep having him do it every week.”
Thomas recorded 20 tackles for loss and 13 sacks during his three varsity seasons at Palo Verde, according to MaxPreps.com, but did not find much interest before landing at Northern Arizona.
“I was excited, period; it was in front of my mom and my dad, it is just for my family right now,” Thomas said of last week’s game. “I have got to put on for them and I have got to prove to myself that I can play at the D-I level. As soon as I started making plays, it is just 'wow, I can compete at this level, I can compete at a big level, I am ready to go for the rest of the season.’”