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Lexington Thomas ready to carry Rebels in 2018

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UNLV running back Lexington Thomas scores a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M., Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Lexington Thomas wants the Rebels to know they can rely on him.

Entering his senior season, Thomas is firmly entrenched as UNLV’s No. 1 running back and best offensive player, and if the team is going to make a run at a postseason bowl in 2018, it will probably be up to the 5-foot-9 playmaker to carry them across the finish line.

Thomas is ready for that responsibility.

After rushing for 1,336 yards and 17 touchdowns last year on 6.3 yards per carry, Thomas is determined to do whatever it takes to maintain that production while increasing the Rebels’ win total. For a speedster mostly known for breaking long runs, that means rounding out the rest of his skill set so he can impact the game in more ways.

“I’ve got to make plays every game,” Thomas said. “I can’t take any days off. I’ve got to work hard every day. Everything a running back has to do, I’ve got to do. I’ve got to block, I’ve got to catch passes out of the backfield, special teams stuff. Everything.”

A more well-rounded Thomas is a scary thought for opponents. He’s already one of the top home-run threats in the nation, capable of slashing through defenses for long touchdown runs. Last year, he recorded seven touchdown runs of 40 yards or longer, and according to Pro Football Focus he racked up 663 of his yards on breakaway runs, the fifth-most among returning running backs.

Surprisingly, Thomas isn’t interested in being pegged as a big-play, open-space runner.

“I wouldn’t say that’s my No. 1 thing,” he said. “I’d say my No. 1 thing is running between the tackles, showing guys that I’m a little guy but I can do the same things that a 6-foot running back can do. I can do the same things that a 210-pound running back can do. That’s what I take pride in.”

The numbers back up Thomas’s assertion that he’s an effective between-the-tackles runner. In 2017, he carried the ball in 22 short-yardage situations (either third or fourth down, with one or two yards to gain), and he converted 18 of those runs. Six of those plays resulted in touchdowns.

Thomas wants his coaches and teammates to have complete confidence in him if the Rebels need a yard with a game hanging in the balance.

“Every 4th-and-1 or 3rd-and-1, no matter what, if we’re under center and running the ball, I’m determined to get that one yard,” Thomas said. “I always tell Armani, if I’m feeling it, even if the coach calls the play on 3rd-and-1 or 4th-and-1 and it’s a read play where Armani has to pull it, I tell him, ‘Armani, just give me the ball, I’m going to get the first down.’”

As UNLV opens training camp on Friday, Thomas appears poised for a huge season. He was named to the All-Mountain West preseason team, he’s working behind a strong offensive line, he’ll have more help from sophomore running back Charles Williams (returning from injury), and another year of experience for sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers should only open up more space for Thomas.

There were times early in his career when Thomas battled questions about whether he could play a full season while taking the beating that comes with being a No. 1 running back. But after playing in every game last season and producing from beginning to end, it sounds like head coach Tony Sanchez is on board with giving Thomas as heavy a workload as he can handle.

“There are times in a game when you feel like he’s got the hot hand,” Sanchez said. “We’re starting to move guys off the ball and he’s close to breaking it, and that’s when you want to keep feeding him, keep feeding him … A lot of his long runs come when defenses load the box. All of a sudden you end up with a one-high coverage and they’re trying to bring pressure. Our offensive line has done a really good job of creating seams and when he gets into that next level, if it’s 1-on-1 he wins every time. He’s gone.”

Another big year from Thomas would see him vault to the top of the UNLV record book. He is 1,250 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher (Tim Cornett, 3,733) and 10 rushing touchdowns away from owning that record (Mike Thomas, 37).

Beyond that, Thomas has his sights set on the NFL. The Mountain West has seen several running backs drafted in recent years (Rashad Penny, Donnell Pumphrey, Jeremy McNichols, Jay Ajayi), and Thomas thinks he can be the next ball-carrier to represent the conference at the pro level.

“That’s my goal,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 goal of every guy in college. I’m doing this to change my life and change my family’s life.”

And what can he do to catch the NFL’s attention?

“I’ve got to make plays. I’ve got to look electric. My nickname is Lightning, so I’ve got to look lightning-fast.”

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

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