As he watched and waited while more than a hundred players came off of the NFL draft board ahead of him, Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas fought to keep his emotions in check.
As a unanimous first-team all-American selection by the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press and Football Writers Association, Thomas was expected to be drafted either late in the second round or somewhere in the third round.
But both rounds came and went on Friday, and Thomas remained available.
Then on Saturday afternoon, at the 119th selection of the draft (22nd of the fourth round), Thomas’s phone rang and the team he grew up cheering for – the Washington Redskins – was on the other end, bringing a huge wave of relief.
“I started getting a little anxious, going throughout the whole draft, watching everybody get picked,” Thomas said via conference call. “But I knew God had a plan for me, and all I needed to do was wait. I couldn’t be happier with where I’m going now.”
Thomas, who led the nation with eight interceptions in 2012, admitted that the snubs prior to his selection did sting.
But now, his goal is to use the long wait as motivation.
“I’m going to come in and give it all I got,” Thomas said. “I feel like I’m going to be the steal of the draft.”
Thomas had contact with the Redskins both at the Senior Bowl in January and the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Then on April 10, Washington hosted him for a pre-draft visit.
“I met with all the coaches, [secondary] coach Raheem [Morris], coach Shanahan,” Thomas said. “We all talked and they liked me a lot, and they like what I have to offer at the safety spot and just being the ball hawk and all the instincts I have. We just sat down, ate dinner, looked at some film, and that’s basically what we did.”
Thomas has some experience playing in the 3-4 defense, which Washington runs. Fresno State switched to that defense Thomas’s senior season, and he thrived, recording 84 tackles (20 more than his junior year), eight interceptions (five more than in 2011) and four forced fumbles (two more than his junior season).
“We changed our whole defense around, and being in the 3-4 defense, we created a lot of pressure and do a lot of things,” Thomas said. “I was able to just play a little bit looser and use my instincts to be what I always knew I was.”
Having grown up a Redskins fan, he is well aware that the secondary is an area that Washington needed to upgrade this offseason. The Redskins haven’t had stability in their secondary until 2007, when Sean Taylor was injured and then murdered.
Thomas calls Taylor his favorite Redskin of all time, and now he hopes that his versatility and ball skills will help him become an impact player for Washington.
“My style of play, I feel like it allows me to play both [safety positions],” Shanahan said. “I’m great at getting the ball when it’s in the air, but also, I did a lot of things as far as blitzing and playing in the box, so I feel like I can do both. I feel like I’m an interchangeable safety that can make plays in the box and in the high hole and get the ball when it’s in the air.”
Thomas became the second defensive back selected by Washington this weekend. The team on Friday night took cornerback David Amerson in the second round, giving them the two players that led the nation in interceptions the past two seasons. (Amerson recorded a NCAA-high 13 picks in 2011).
The last time the Redskins selected two defensive backs in the first 119 picks of the draft was 1969 when Washington selected UTEP’s Eugene Epps 46th overall and Colorado State’s Bill Kishman 114th.
Washington has taken a player with the 119th overall pick six times in franchise history. The last two selections were 2012 (Keenan Robinson) and 1981 (Dexter Manley).
More draft coverage from The Post:
The Early Lead: After horrific knee injury, Lattimore is drafted by 49ers
The Early Lead: Smith goes to Jets, has Sanchez in his sights
The Early Lead: Te’o goes to Chargers in Round 2
The Early Lead: Honey Badger says Patrick Paterson helped him get to Arizona