Thurmond Hopes to Keep Lions on top in West
Arkansas-Pine Bluff defensive end Brandon Thurmond has played like a man possessed this season, harassing opposing quarterbacks all over the field.
The senior from Augusta, Ga., has already doubled his sack total of a year ago and is No. 3 in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) with 7.5.Thurmond’s relentless pass rush has been instrumental in the Golden Lions’ defensive showing – they are No. 2 in the SWAC in fewest points and total yards allowed and No. 2 in fewest passing yards allowed – and he is gearing up for another big effort when Arkansas-Pine Bluff plays Southern in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday in a showdown for first place in the SWAC West Division.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff leads the division with a 3-1 conference record; Southern is second at 2-2. A victory for Southern and the race is wide open with both teams having two conference losses and Prairie View A&M – 1-3 in the conference – still alive.
“This is the biggest game of my life,’’ Thurmond says. “We have to win this game in order to continue the journey to SWAC Championship Game. That’s a good motivation.’’
Thurmond and the Golden Lions are also motivated by memories of last season when they also controlled their division championship destiny with a 3-2 conference record following a 22-21 home victory against Southern. They lost their next two conference games after 25 players from Arkansas-Pine Bluff – 23 for one game and two for two games – and 16 from Southern were suspended for at least one game for their roles in a postgame melee.
The Golden Lions lost back-to-back games against Grambling and Alabama State while playing both contests without Stephen Jones, their No. 2 rusher and leading scorer with nine touchdowns, and their No. 2 tackler, who were hit with two-game suspensions for using excessive force during the brawl. The defeats put the Golden Lions in the position of needing Grambling and Prairie View to lose in order for them to reach the championship. They didn’t get the help they needed and finished in a second-place tie with Prairie View.
“We don’t want to live in last year’s footsteps, waiting for somebody to beat somebody for us to get to the championship game,’’ Thurmond says. “That was a tough feeling to depend on somebody else. No football player wants to have that feeling.’’
Mumford Stadium has a reputation for being a difficult place for opposing teams to win, in part because of the Jaguars’ raucous fans. Thurmond is confident that the Golden Lions will be able to overcome the crowd, avoid a repeat of last season’s brawl, win the game and continue their march to the division title.
“We can’t get outside ourselves,’’ he says. “We have to play the type ball our coaches want. We can’t fall for the hype. We can’t have an altercation like last year that cost us the season.
Thurmond has some personal motivation working for him going into the contest against Southern as well. Pass rushers are a valued commodity in the NFL, and his ability to get after the quarterbacks has grabbed scouts’ attention. He figures to get lots of opportunities to play his trade against Southern. The Jaguars are the second-best passing team in the SWAC, averaging 222.7 yards a game.
“The more they pass the ball, the more opportunities I have to get back there and help the defense cover and make the defensive backs look good,’’ Thurmond says.
Thurmond, who spent the summer on campus working out, attributes his increased productivity this season to a change in his approach to the game.
“I’m working harder,’’ he says, “and I’m more dedicated. I have a lot going for myself. I’m putting everything aside for football this being my last season. Your season, you will always be more focused and dedicated than in junior season, especially when you have high aspirations.’’
Thurmond’s rededication to the game included changing his diet. He eats more green vegetables, and he shies away from fried foods.
“It’s not hard when you’re motivated to eat healthy and have a better season,’’ Thurmond says of his change in diet. “I feel better on the field.’’
Thurmond also says his new diet and his offseason workout routine have increased his stamina. He doesn’t tire as quickly as he did in the past, and he is able to go harder and longer than before in practice as well as in games.
“He knows this is his last campaign,’’ says Arkansas-Pine Bluff coach Monte Coleman. “Some pro scouts have come through. He’s got a lot to play and he’s trying to do the best that he can do to get a chance on the next level.’’
Thurmond, 6-2, 260, isn’t a one-trick pony. He is also strong against the run, as evidenced by his 11.0 tackles for loss – he had 7.0 all of last season – 36 total tackles.
“He just goes hard all the time,’’ Coleman says. “He’s a lot stronger. He’s able to maneuver or manhandle some of offensive linemen. He has gone against. He has great speed, and he has good size. You add all those things together and they produce the season he is having.’’
Thurmond patterns his play after Dwight Freeney, the Indianapolis Colts’ seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end, who at 6-1, 268 is similar in height and weight to him.
He tries to emulate the way Freeney beats offensive linemen by creating angles by using his speed to get past them even though Freeney has better speed than he does.
“As long as I have a step or half step on the tackle,’’ he says. “It’s not all about speed. It’s about technique too.’’
When it comes to getting to the quarterback, Thurmond has a simple philosophy.
“I just want to be the first to get to the ball,’’ he says. “It’s just a great feeling (to sack the quarterback). I can’t describe it. It’s a good feeling that I like to have.’’
As for leading the conference in sacks, he says, “It’s your job. Why not be good at it?’’