CHASE THOMAS DELIGHTS IN ELICITING A CERTAIN REACTION FROM A QUARTERBACK HE has just sacked. "The best is when you hear that little squeak or whimper when you hit him really good," says Stanford's star outside linebacker. "That's probably the best feeling. I don't know what I can really compare it to. Maybe hitting a game-winning shot in basketball." With 20 sacks, Thomas has enjoyed that feeling frequently during his first three seasons with the Cardinal. Last season he made the All-Pac-12 first team by leading the conference in tackles for loss (17½) and tying for second in sacks (8½). "Just watching him on film, he seems unblockable," says running back Stepfan Taylor. "He knows how to get in just the right position to make you miss."
Thomas arrived on the Farm as a lanky 6' 4" 200-pounder from Marietta, Ga. After redshirting as a freshman, he got up to about 220 pounds by 2009 when, despite matching up against much bigger tackles and tight ends, he still started eight games and had four sacks as a defensive end. Thomas's experience as a high school wrestler helped him compensate for his size. "I knew leverage," he says. "Hand placement was probably the key contributor to me not getting demolished."
Thomas began to thrive when Stanford switched to a 3--4 defense for the 2010 season, allowing him to move to linebacker. By then he'd bulked up to 240 pounds. (He's now 248.) "His body structure is more suited to outside linebacker," says position coach Lance Anderson. "He gave us some great pass-rushing ability, but [as an end] teams would find where he was and get a tight end and tackle on him. A key was being able to play in space, where he could also drop into coverage." Starting all 13 games that year, Thomas became the Cardinal's second-leading tackler (70) and tied for the lead in sacks (7½). Last season his tackle total dropped (to 52), but he spent more time in opponents' backfields.
Becoming a pass-rushing terror takes more than hand placement and leverage, however. While Thomas is generally mild-mannered off the field, his attitude in pads and helmet is rather different. "He's got a little snarl on his face, and he's always a little bit grumpy," says Anderson. "He's got an edge to him."
Thomas's nasty streak showed as a teenager on the lacrosse field. "Every time I hit someone, they would call unnecessary roughness or blow to the head because I was taller than everybody else," he says. "But I got my good hits in." To boost his speed and explosiveness, Thomas began working in the eighth grade with noted trainer Tony Villani, then based in Atlanta.
On the gridiron, although Thomas was undersized, SEC and ACC recruiters rigorously pursued him, including those from Auburn, North Carolina and Tennessee. "But I kind of knew I wanted to go far away," he says. "I preferred a change of scenery, and California is different than Georgia."
Indeed. He's had to make do for four years without sweet tea, Chick-fil-A or decent barbecue, but he's played an integral role in Stanford's rise from Pac-12 cellar dweller to national top five team. With the return of standout inside linebacker Shayne Skov, who missed most of last season, the Cardinal's front seven should be even tougher. "Last year, without Shayne, teams could slide protection to focus a little more on Chase," says Anderson. "With both of them, it will be tougher for teams to do that." More opposing quarterbacks could be letting out a whimper.