College Sports

J.C. Smith safety once led nation in interceptions: What’s next? ‘Trying to get more’

Johnson C. Smith safety Carlo Thomas returns for his senior season with the Golden Bulls. As a sophomore, he led the country in interceptions with 12.
Johnson C. Smith safety Carlo Thomas returns for his senior season with the Golden Bulls. As a sophomore, he led the country in interceptions with 12.

Carlo Thomas is ambitious and opportunistic.

The J.C. Smith free safety wants a career season, which means topping his CIAA record 12-interception campaign from 2015. Seven players share the NCAA Division II mark of 14 picks in a season, and Thomas, who has a nation’s-best 19 over the past two years, figures he’s capable of grabbing the top spot.

“I’m trying to get more,” he said. “I’m trying to make this season magical. Anything I say, I believe I can achieve it, and if I say 15 I believe I’m going out and catch 15 this season.”

Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior from East Orange, N.J., is one of the nation’s most accomplished returning defensive backs. In two seasons as a Golden Bull, he’s earned back-to-back All-America and All-CIAA accolades. He’s also on the Black College Football Hall of Fame’s player of the year watch list.

“Watching him on film when we first recruited him, we knew we had a diamond in the rough,” J.C. Smith coach Kermit Blount said. “We knew we had a jewel. We just had to polish it up.”

Thomas’ asset is anticipation, which allows him to track the ball as well as align the secondary. Because opponents have to account for Thomas’ whereabouts in passing situations, the defense benefits.

“He’s the kind of guy we can play at corner, strong safety, free safety,” Blount said. “We can play him anywhere in the secondary. That’s what makes him an asset.”

Said J.C. Smith cornerback Darryl Napper: “He’s like a big brother on and off the field. He’s a big brother who makes sure we’re watching film, makes sure we’re getting our class work, makes sure we’re holding up a good name on campus for the football team. He holds up all aspects to the team.”

Thomas’ highest expectations are reserved for himself. After breaking onto the national scene with 12 picks as a sophomore, he added seven last year although opponents avoided his area. Thomas still trails Willie Jones (1975-78), who has 21 career interceptions for the Golden Bulls.

With seven starters returning on defense, J.C. Smith, which went 3-7 last year, is looking to turn that experience into a winning campaign, starting Sept. 2 at home against Wingate.

“It’s my last ride, my last season opener,” Thomas said. “It’s a lot of emotions. I’m just taking it one day at a time, and my team? We’re ready. We’re jelling. We’ve got a lot of energy and we can’t wait until next Saturday.”

Division II conference previews

South Atlantic

Favorite: Newberry

Contenders: Wingate, Mars Hill

Players to watch: QB Ivan Corbin (Limestone); RB Lawrence Pittman (Wingate); LB Kyle Kitchens (Catawba).

Comment: Defending champ Newberry thrives behind an efficient passing game. Wingate will rely on a solid defense and strong ground game. Catawba, picked for fourth, is another tough defensive team behind Kitchens. Lenoir-Rhyne is picked seventh and will have a lot of young players starting.

CIAA

Favorites: Bowie State (East), Winston-Salem State (West); Winston-Salem State (overall).

Contenders: Virginia State, Virginia Union (East); Fayetteville State (West).

Local teams: Johnson C. Smith has a strong defense and is picked fifth of six teams in the East. Livingstone, battling inexperience, is picked sixth in the East.

Players to watch: QB Amir Hall (Bowie State); RB Trenton Cannon (Virginia State).

Comment: Winston-Salem State’s defense and Bowie State’s explosive offense are expected to dominate.

Steve Lyttle

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