Graceland receiver Caleb Thomas set an NAIA record against Baker on Sept. 16 with 27 catches in a single game. He discussed the performance from Lamoni.
Chris Cuellar/The Register
LAMONI, Ia. — Caleb Thomas already thinks Graceland University suits him better than any of the four high schools he attended over the past four years.
The freshman receiver from south Florida didn’t choose to be a needle in college football’s haystack. He was simply following his family, bouncing around Miami-Dade County because of circumstance and little money: a process that uprooted home, school and any recruiting interest that might have found a skinny 5-foot-9 kid in a talent-rich state.
Now, living in Lamoni and starring for an 0-4 team at the NAIA level, Thomas is constantly smiling. He and Graceland’s run-and-shoot offense are getting comfortable with setting national records, and last Saturday’s game just scratched the surface.
“This was a place where I could really build myself, academically and as a man, not just on the football field,” Thomas said Thursday outside first-year head coach Marc Kolb’s office. “I was a little nervous at first, but I felt the brotherhood on campus and with the team. It’s warming and reassuring to me to see how everything here is building in the right direction.
“What we’re doing at Graceland is perfect, not only for me, but for the offense, for all the athletes we have on the team. It’s a perfect fit, really.”
Thomas was unquestionably the go-to guy in a blowout loss to second-ranked Baker: 27 receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns. It’s an absurd amount of catches in a single game — the most in NAIA history, and more than anyone ever in all divisions of NCAA — and a good starting point to see how Graceland runs its “extreme up-tempo” system.
On an afternoon when quarterback Preston Compton set a national record for most individual snaps (103) and the offense shook off an abysmal start to run 124 official plays (yes, another record), Thomas was in the right spot at the right time among the four- and five-wide sets.
“You have to be aggressive and in today’s college football, you have to have the ability score points,” Kolb said. “You better be able to move the football. And there’s an attitude that goes with that. You’re going to attack. You’re not going to sit back. You’re going to establish the game as an offense.
“None of us realized last Saturday that we ran that many plays, but we practice like that. We have to be high tempo and high volume. Our goal in practice is to run three plays per minute. It’s constant motion.”
Kolb is a Brown grad with 20 years of experience as an offensive coordinator and run-and-shoot disciple. The former center breaks out a well-worn, first-edition copy of Glenn Ellison’s “Run and Shoot Football: Offense of the Future” to prove his devotion, and the memorabilia on his office walls show the results.
Records broken across NCAA FCS and Division II. All-American honors for players who may not have been the most talented, but became the most productive.
That’s what got Compton to buy in when Kolb was hired and hit the ground running in June.
“There were some long hours in meetings and studying our playbooks,” Compton said. “But the positive thing is that we all bought in to the offense from Day 1. We were rolling. It’s been successful ever since.
“We always want to improve as a team, but it gives us confidence seeing that we really are capable of moving the ball and playing our pace against anybody.”
Compton completed 49 of his 86 pass attempts for 370 yards last Saturday, but was far from satisfied with the performance. The Texas native threw three interceptions and was sacked nine times, with the Yellow Jackets trailing 51-0 by halftime.
The gaudy second-half statistics were the result of a no-huddle underdog playing hard until the final whistle. Compton is used to that. He’s a 6-foot quarterback who had to play wide receiver in high school after mononucleosis cut 75 pounds off his body and months off his development as a college prospect in the Dallas suburbs.
“I’ve known since fourth grade that I wanted to play college football. This was my dream,” Compton said. “My mom put together highlight tapes after my freshman and sophomore year (in high school). People wanted me at receiver, a few at quarterback. Then junior year, I got sick, the mail stopped coming. Graceland gave me an opportunity. I flew up here on a visit senior year, and I fell in love with it.”
Kolb hired three new assistants to join him at the small, scenic campus off Interstate 35. Two others from the old staff stuck around: Justice Clegg, the offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, and Nate Robinson, the running backs assistant and junior varsity head coach. With such a late start date, even at the NAIA level, Kolb rushed to shape the program on and off the field without the benefit of a full recruiting class. Fortunately, Robinson found Thomas uncommitted in Miami, and the rest of the pieces have started coming together.
“We’ve been at a dead sprint since the day we got on campus,” Kolb said. “Probably 95 percent of the team, the first time they met me was our first team meeting. We reached out and made calls, sure, but we hustled to discuss our expectations, our standards, our attitude, and the way things are supposed to be done.
“This is all brand-new.”
Thomas lined up in multiple positions to put together his record-breaking performance, frequently taking advantage of coverage as a check-down option for Compton, but occasionally squirting through holes in the secondary.
There were, and will continue to be, quick reads to the shifty receiver at the line of scrimmage, but film and the final score show Graceland was finding whoever was open against a tough defense. A football imitation of Grinnell basketball, it was not.
“We’re not setting out on Saturdays to break a record,” Kolb said.
“Caleb is a guy that did everything in high school. He was a receiver, he was a quarterback, running back, cornerback, kick returner, probably made Gatorade on the sideline, might have had a CDL to drive the bus home. I don’t know. But he was used everywhere. Whenever you find those types of players, you find ways to get them involved as much as you can.”
When Thomas arrived in Lamoni for the first time, enrolled and ready for workouts, he didn’t know exactly what the run-and-shoot would entail. Now, he’s Graceland’s “A” receiver, otherwise known as “the man-maker” or “the All-American” spot in Kolb’s excited vernacular.
Thomas is just thrilled to have an early opportunity on the field and a space he can call home for more than a year. And thanks to technology, family in Florida and Georgia can see their national record-holder star in NAIA games online.
“The offense is just like a car,” Thomas said. “Everybody plays a certain part. Without one part, the car won’t work. When everybody is working at the same time, we can run just like how we’re supposed to. I wouldn’t be doing anything without my offensive line and my quarterback and the other receivers. This attention is all just a credit to the offense.”
Graceland has a long way to go to sniff the numbers that Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills or Andre Ware and the Houston Cougars consistently posted in this system back in the 1980s.
Kolb is OK with that. He senses a young team is making strides, and he’s getting messages from high school prospects suddenly interested in playing for a school that throws as many times as MLB starting pitchers. But he’d like to turn these statistics into victories soon, too.
The goal of this system and these players and all their fresh starts is to win at Graceland. They’re getting there.
“These guys are great people, and that’s the other thing that’s phenomenal,” Kolb said. “Good students, good human beings. I don’t have to worry about them off the field, like they’re going to get in trouble, and that is a beautiful thing as a head coach. They show up, they work hard, they go to class, do everything they’re supposed to.
“I didn’t know if it would be like this. But I knew that we could get there.”
HOW DOES HE DO IT?
Graceland receiver Caleb Thomas set an NAIA single-game record for receptions against Baker last Saturday. Here is his production so far this season and quarterly from that game, in number of receptions, receiving yards, yards per catch and receiving touchdowns.
Week Opponent No. Yards YPC TD
1 MidAmerica Nazarene 11 66 6.0 1
2 Avila 21 189 9.0 2
3 No. 12 Missouri Valley 16 135 8.4 1
4 No. 2 Baker 27 197 7.3 2
Totals 75 587 7.8 6
Qtr. No. Yards TD
1st 4 53 0
2nd 5 24 0
3rd 10 66 2
4th 8 54 0
Total 27 197 2