Shortly after Omari Thomas committed to Tennessee football, his homeboys in Memphis made fun of him.
“They all like joked and laughed at me,’” Thomas said recently. “Y’all gonna beat Alabama?”
The insulting remarks prompted a response from the highly rated defensive tackle.
“I just committed to Tennessee,” Thomas said. “I’m not going to let you talk down on my school like this.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but my junior year, we’re going to be a good football team.”
Thomas was right. Thanks to an exceptional run defense led by Thomas, Tennessee football beat Alabama and LSU and Florida and then Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Vols went 11-2 and finished No. 6 in the final AP and Coaches’ polls.
It was Tennessee’s best season since 2001.
“I was dead serious when I said we’re going to be a good football team my junior year,” Thomas said.
“I don’t know why. I just felt as if my junior year, we’d continue to grow with each other. … Coach (Josh) Heupel got us going in the right direction, got us going the right way.”
The right way led to a New Year’s Six bowl game in Miami.
Clemson won the ACC championship and was a touchdown favorite to beat the Vols. Both teams were playing with backup quarterbacks, and both teams had key personnel missing due to injury or opt out.
The Vols were without receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman and linebacker Jeremy Banks.
Didn’t matter. Tennessee jumped on Clemson early, frustrated the Tigers’ offense into three missed field goals in the first half and pulled away for an impressive 31-14 victory.
“This is very special, very special,” Thomas said in the post-game locker room celebration.
If he’d had a cigar nearby, he probably would have smoked it.
“Beating Clemson, it’s good,” he said. “They’ve been in those national championship games … those big games. To just, as a Tennessee Vol, to be in this moment, it’s something we’re ready to see on a regular basis.’’
What if someone had said last August UT would win 11 games this season?
“I would agree with everything they said,” Thomas said. “It’s crazy. One thing I’ve been happy about this year is to be a part of change, to see that.”
Thomas said growing up, it was tough to watch Georgia and Alabama play in big bowl games and Tennessee not.
“You always hear about the Power T,” Thomas said. “I’m like, I want to be a part of the Orange. I want Tennessee to be in those games. So being in a big bowl game, being a part of change has been really good for me.”
After Tennessee football beat Clemson and the post-game celebration was dying down, Thomas had one more thing to do. He had to reach out to those haters in Memphis.
“I’m going to text them as soon as I get on the bus,” Thomas said.