Lexington Thomas ready for No. 1 role at running back

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV’s Lexington Thomas (3) blasts through a hole in the Howard defense during their home-opening football game on Saturday, September 2, 2017.

The most carries Lexington Thomas can remember handling in a single game is 27, which came during his prep days at Davis High School in Houston.

Thomas hasn’t been that kind of workhorse running back during his time at UNLV — his high for single game is 21 carries, and his average is 10.1 attempts per game — but if the Rebels ever needed him to step up and be a true No. 1 ball-carrier, the time is now. With sophomore co-starter Charles Williams out for the season due to an ankle injury, Thomas, a 5-foot-9 junior, is going to be asked to shoulder a bigger role in the offense over the final 10 games.

So far this season he has proven to be UNLV’s best playmaker. Thomas rushed for 151 yards in Week 1 and 190 yards and three touchdowns in the Rebels’ Week 2 win at Idaho, and two of his scores on Saturday showcased his scintillating speed, as they came on runs longer than 60 yards.

There’s no doubt Thomas can make defenders miss, and he has the ability to take any play to the end zone. The question is, will he be able to deliver as the Rebels’ No. 1 back over the course of the long season?

After Wednesday's practice, head coach Tony Sanchez said he expects Thomas to receive a larger percentage of the team’s carries going forward.

“He’ll probably end up getting more,” Sanchez said. “In a perfect world, Chuck was probably going to get his 16 carries, Lexington was going to get his 12 and the other guys maybe five or six, because you’ve also got Armani [Rogers] carrying the ball. Now, you’re probably going to see Lexington going up to that 18-20 mark and those other guys are probably going to share another 15-16 carries.”

Last year, nagging injuries caused Thomas to miss two games, and he was severely limited in three other contests toward the end of the season (just 13 carries combined). And because he weighs in at a slight 170 pounds, he knows there are going to be questions about his physicality. But three days after toting the ball 17 times against Idaho, Thomas said he felt fine.

If the coaches call on Thomas to carry the ball more, he’s confident he’ll come through.

“The first game I had 21 [carries], so that’s not that big of a deal,” Thomas said. “Whoever’s hot, that’s who’s hot and that’s who’s going to get the ball. That’s how it works … I’m pretty sure I can handle anything they throw at me.”

Sanchez said he doesn’t expect the offensive play-calling to change much with Williams out. UNLV is a running team, and Thomas is now the leader of that rushing attack.

“Lexington has been here for two years, and he has plenty of game experience,” Sanchez said. “He’s done a great job in the weight room … Lexington has proven he can do it. He’s shown how physical he can be. He’s done it against good competition. He’s shown he has no problem chewing up yards against the likes of UCLA, so he’s been in some tough environments and played well. He can carry the load.”

Though Sanchez said there are some differences in running styles between Williams and Thomas, the coach said he wouldn’t hesitate to put the ball in Thomas’ hands in any situation.

“Lexington is by far the shiftiest of our [running backs] group, by far,” Sanchez said. “Charles is more of a slasher, he’s not going to get out in space and try to shake you. He’s going to go straight ahead and run to angles. Lexington can manipulate his styles. He can go in and out, he can be the slasher, he can go straight ahead, he can be the shake and bake guy. He’s kind of a dual threat.”

Thomas agreed with Sanchez’s scouting report and admitted he bristles when he’s labelled as strictly a scatback or an outside runner.

“Because I’m fast, everybody says I’m a speed back,” Thomas said. “But I see myself more as a one-cut back. I can play between the tackles. That’s where most of my touchdowns come, in between the tackles and guards.”

That was very true against Idaho, as both of Thomas’ long touchdown runs came on straight-ahead bursts up the middle. He also churned through Idaho’s goal-line defense on a 1-yard touchdown run.

That’s the kind of tough running the Rebels are going to need from Thomas every week from now until the end of the season. He’s comfortable with the responsibility.

“I don’t have a choice,” Thomas said. “I can do it. If we need a big play, I’m going to give us a big play.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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