Blair Thomas is one of Penn State’s legendary running backs, an athlete who to this day remains the only Nittany Lion to rush for 1,300 yards in back-to-back seasons.
Thomas played from 1985 to 1989 and was the New York Jets’ No. 2 overall draft pick in 1990. He finished his Penn State career with 3,301 rushing yards, the fifth-most in school history, to go along with 21 touchdowns.
We recently caught up with Thomas to discuss Saquon Barkley, the sanctions and how the game has changed. Check out the interview below:
Centre Daily Times: Let me put you on the spot here right away: Is Saquon Barkley the best Penn State running back of all-time?
Blair Thomas: Well, we all played in different offenses. So in this style that’s out right now — where you’re getting four receivers and you have a running quarterback — yes. This style, he’s definitely the best I’ve seen do it so far.
CDT: So, best so far in the modern era?
BT: Yeah because we were tight end; we had everyone in the box. So everyone was eight men in the box. But now, with the four receivers ... you get a talent with (Barkley’s) ability, it’s hard to compare.
CDT: Is there anything you’re specifically looking forward to watching with the 2018 team?
BT: I’m waiting to see Miles Sanders do his thing. He’s been waiting in the wings, and now we get a chance to see him on a consistent basis. I don’t think he’s as diverse a running back as Saquon is, but I think with Mark Allen and some of the other guys we have, we have a change of speed. Opportunities where Saquon gave you both backs — I think you got that in both Miles and Allen, and some of the other backs. So you can get a linebacker looking at one speed and then put another guy in there and it’s like, “Ohhhhhh.”
CDT: To get to this point, Penn State had quite a bit to overcome. The sanctions came down July 23, 2012 — I’m curious, how soon after that was it where you knew your alma mater was going to be OK?
BT: I thought we were going to come out this thing on the better side of it, no matter what, because good always trumps evil. And for them to put this on Joe (Paterno), that was evil in trying to show whatever they wanted to show. But it did not decapitate the program. I think it’s going to make it stronger over time.
CDT: Why do you think that is? How did Penn State overcome that?
BT: I think those young players that committed and stayed — those guys really set the tone. Jordan Hill’s one of those guys — you got Jordan Hill, you got the linebacker (Mike) Mauti, (Michael) Zordich, the fullback — so those guys kind of took it from the inside because it had to be grabbed from the inside because they were the team. They were the ones that could make an impact one way or another. Some left, unfortunately. I thought Silas Redd was going to stay. I talked to him on the phone; Coached asked me to give him a call. I said, “Coach, I talked to him over the phone. He’s going to stay.”
CDT: Yeah, I know (Bill) O’Brien really tried to talk him into sticking with Penn State, where he would’ve been the featured back.
BT: He asked me to call him. And when I talked to him on the phone, I don’t know if I got a chance to say this to him or not — but it was a great opportunity to show what you can do because every news outlet was going to be at every Penn State game trying to get something from someone. So the only thing you got to do is (play well) and you’d be on top of the world.
CDT: It didn’t really work out for him in the end.
BT: That’s because he left! That’s because he left.
CDT: Let’s shift gears a little bit. I feel like I might know the answer to this one — but I’ve got to ask. What is your favorite Penn State memory?
BT: Oh, it’d have to be winning the national championship (in 1986 as a sophomore) when you come up with a memory. Because we played for it the year before and we lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and so many of our seniors and upperclassmen decided to come back. And I was very instrumental during the season in so many games keeping us in contention, even if I didn’t play much in the actual championship game.
CDT: What was it like at the end, after winning that national title?
BT: Oh my gosh. That was another good vs. evil type of thing because they (Miami) came in there with their army fatigues and they didn’t want to eat with us, where most bowl games you get at least one meal with the team you’re playing against. So they were just kind of disrespectful and, somehow — that’s just how it goes, man. That’s why I say I ain’t mad at nobody. I’m happy, just thinking positive things. And that’s why we we got to support the team; we as fans got to do our part to support them, and they’ll keep winning games.
CDT: What’s changed the most in the game since your playing days at Penn State?
BT: The fullback position is really nonexistent because they went to the spread. So with that now you’re taking — we had bigger types of linebackers filling holes. Now, you got to get smaller, niftier linebackers that can cover slot receivers or even now tight ends. We had two fullbacks, and they both got drafted at the end of the second round and start of the third round.
CDT: Recruiting has also changed quite a bit. What was recruiting like for you in Philadelphia, and when did you know Penn State was the right school?
BT: I knew I wasn’t going far from home even though I took all my visits. I went to Ohio State, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pitt and Penn State. And I wanted to make sure I took all my visits. I was from the inner city; I never got to spend time getting on a plane and going to Pitt. So, after that, I was just like taking all my visits. I was recruited from every school in the country, but it was a different era. Now, with the internet, these guys are just jumping from one team to the next.
CDT: One recruit just committed to Penn State and, about a week later, changed his commitment to Northwestern — so you’re not wrong there.
BT: They try to attach with different buddies. It’s a whole different recruiting game now. You got to babysit kids a lot longer. That’s why I say when we lose a kid, he wasn’t the right kid for us anyway. Everyone goes, “He’s a five-star, he’s a four-star!” He wasn’t the right fit for us because how many walk-ons have we had through the history of Penn State that go on to be very good football players? Because that’s the bottom line. We’re trying to create football players for the collegiate level.