Carlton Thomas wanted to tell fans he was sorry.
One hundred and twenty-seven yards worth of sorry, in fact.
A week after serving a one-game suspension for breaking an undisclosed team rule, the junior Georgia tailback responded with a career-best performance, and his 127 yards rushing stood as a game high until teammate and fellow tailback Isaiah Crowell surpassed it with a series of late fourth-quarter dashes in Georgia’s 45-7 victory over Auburn on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
“I really feel like I let all of our fans down who have supported us since Day 1,” Thomas said. “And the only way I felt like I could get them back on my side was to come out here and have a good game and win this game because people have been behind us since Day 1.”
Thomas’ previous career high came in a 71-yard effort against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 17, and prior to that he had broken 50 yards only twice.
Not knowing how many times he would touch the ball, Thomas said he was bent on shaking off any doubts and making the most out of each chance Saturday. Bowling through holes in the line and not being afraid of taking a hit for an extra yard even at 5-foot-7 and 163 pounds, he showed as much.
“One thing my parents always told me was that you’ve got to believe in yourself,” Thomas said. “I always believe in myself, the coaches believe in me, and it was just a point of coming out when you’ve got the opportunities and pretty much rolling with it and making the best of your opportunities. I really feel like I got a lot of opportunities and I really made the best of all of my opportunities.”
Last week’s 63-16 rout of New Mexico State was the second time Thomas has missed a game this season due to a suspension as he sat out the season-opening loss to Boise State for similar reasons.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said he has been impressed with Thomas’ ability to recover from his mistakes and make gains through his work ethic.
“Carlton has worked extremely hard from Day 1 this year,” Bobo said. “Even when he was suspended for the first game, he busted his tail in practices. And he practices well and he understands what we’re doing better than any back we have. He’s probably the most dependable guy we’ve got, and he’s got some natural running skills and he played well (Saturday).”
Thomas’ return was praised by coaches and teammates down to the details, with even his blocking drawing attention from head coach Mark Richt, who singled out Thomas’ effort on a first-quarter play that resulted in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Murray to Michael Bennett.
“A lot of things had to happen to score that touchdown, but one of them was there’s an outside linebacker blitz that was (Thomas’) responsibility,” Richt said. “And he just went up there and stuck the guy. He just stuck him, the guy didn’t budge an inch from the contact, and Murray had plenty of protection in the pocket.”
If the suspensions and the seemingly ever-changing rotation of tailbacks proves anything, it’s that no Georgia tailback’s job is safe, whether from injury, performance or suspension.
Having now seen the fickleness of the situation better than any other player at that position, Thomas said he is driven to rise to the the top at every opportunity.
“It pushes you every day,” Thomas said. “You know you’ve got guys that probably could do the same thing you’re doing. It makes you go out there every day with the mentality that I can’t take a day off practice, that I’ve got to get better, and that shows.”