Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has left no doubt about what kind of leader defensive tackle Robert Thomas has been, but respect on the team for the senior, who is out for the season with an injury, continues to make itself evident.
Arkansas defensive tackle Byran Jones wore Thomas' No. 98 jersey last week in the Razorbacks' loss to Alabama, and Bielema said a different and deserving player will get the same opportunity each week.
"That Saturday night when Robert was hurt, I was sitting on my couch watching the world of college football ... and it popped into my mind that he's got No. 98, which is an eligible jersey number," Bielema said. "Anyone that handles the football can wear his jersey, even though he plays defensive line. So I kind of came up with the idea and thought to honor him, would be a way to let him have some say and us as coaches, pick a guy every week."
Thomas is among the top defensive tackle prospects in the Southeastern Conference for the 2014 NFL Draft. Bielema said he visited Thomas on a Tuesday in the hospital, just after he had undergone surgery, and suggested the idea. Thomas (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) broke a bone in his left leg Oct. 12 against South Carolina, and it ended the senior's college career.
"He became very emotional, as well as I did, and loved the idea. He wanted the first one to go to Byran (Jones), one of his best friends, obviously, they play the same position, a guy he loves to death," Bielema said. "We'll rotate that through the rest of the season and hopefully give someone a little more incentive to play in his honor, knowing he'll never (again) get to play for the Razorbacks."
The move went hard to notice on Saturday, given that Jones plays Thomas' defensive tackle position. It will look far more awkward, no doubt, when the No. 98 goes to a Razorback who doesn't play near the line of scrimmage.
Just wait until standout cornerback Tevin Mitchel, for instance, gets his turn.
Hear Bielema's full remarks on the Razorbacks, including some especially high praise for another of his draft prospects, center Travis Swanson, at secsports.com.