HATTIESBURG - While consistently coming through week in and week out with big plays, Southern Miss senior Mike Thomas has put together what could easily be considered the best season by a receiver in program history.
After a junior campaign where he showed the occasional flash of brilliance, Thomas set a new single-season USM record with 1,201 receiving yards and is one touchdown catch away from tying Sherrod Gideon's school record of 13 from 1998.
It took two years for Thomas to become the big-play threat that USM quarterback Nick Mullens so badly needed, but the three-year starter had an early inclination that the Chicago native was set to become his go-to man.
"I knew it because he told me," the junior said. "I remember, it was up there in that north end zone. He said, 'Man, I can't wait to be your receiver.' He told me that on his recruiting visit.
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"His development took a little while. He got here in the first camp and he had to get in shape and get used to the system. Everybody has seen him develop and how good of a talent he is, but he told me the first time I met him."
That confidence in his own ability has served Thomas well as a senior and helped improve his chances at making the jump to the NFL.
"I've always had a chip on my shoulder and I knew I could go and get the ball," Thomas said. "That's what I do. I stretch the field so much that whenever I see a defender playing me a certain way or a certain technique, I give Nick the go to let him know I can make this happen and execute this play. We've got a lot of chemistry."
Thomas still has plenty to prove in his pursuit of the NFL, but Thomas will have a chance to show off against a talented Washington secondary in the Dec. 26 Heart of Dallas Bowl and at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Jan 23 in Carson, Calif.
Thomas credited the work he put in over the summer for helping turn his senior season into a special one.
"I was just working hard every day in the summer," Thomas said. "I was on the field with Nick and (backup QB Tyler Matthews) every day. It was just repetition, getting routes down pat and catching 100 balls daily. The hard work paid off this season and I might get another chance to get to show my talents."
Mullens and Thomas have worked well together on the field this season, especially on deep tosses down the sideline.
"I know where he's going to be and he knows where I'm going to put the ball," Mullens said. "He's a great guy off the field. He works hard and takes care of business. He's an all-around complete player. That's awesome. Peyton Manning said you should never get tired of throwing the same route over and over. Mike has really embraced that."
Thomas stands 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, but he plays much bigger due to his athleticism.
The best example of this came on Nov. 28 in the regular season finale at Louisiana Tech when he soared high to pulled in a pass one-handed and drag one foot inside the end zone for a touchdown.
Video of the play made rounds on social media and landed Thomas on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays.
The score was just one of several big plays from Thomas that day.
"I've got (the highlights) saved in my phone so I can go back and watch them sometimes," Thomas said with a grin.
A former receivers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, USM head coach Todd Monken knows well what it takes to succeed on that level, and he believes Thomas has the makeup.
"He has that approach," Monken said. "He likes football. He works at it. He likes to be coached. He has a 'Coach me, coach' attitude, which is great. He's one of our hardest workers. You've got a good team when your best players are your hardest workers, and that's the case for us."