By Rick Maese and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Dwight Thomas wasn't especially surprised his son, Devin, turned in a disappointing rookie season. He'd seen it before, his son making a big step to a new level and inevitably struggling to adjust.
"Throughout his little football career, I mean, this always happened," Dwight Thomas said Thursday, taking in training camp at Redskins Park. "When he started in [youth] football, his first year in junior high, his first year in high school, whatever it was, he was always just a little slow to get going, just moderate."
But Dwight Thomas has reason for optimism. In Year 2, he says, his son has always adjusted and exceeded expectations.
The Redskins are counting on it. Determined to upgrade their offense, coaches are banking on either Thomas or Malcolm Kelly to prove that they belong in the starting lineup and can bolster the team's passing game.
In the second day of this year's training camp, it was Thomas who saw the most action with the first-team unit, and he appears to have a slight edge over Kelly in the initial stage of the position battle. Of course, that's how the Redskins started last year's camp, too.
Since the two receivers were each taken in the second round of the 2008 draft, their names have appeared in the same sentence -- Thomas and Kelly, the Redskins' version of a buddy comedy -- and coaches and fans alike are paying close attention these next several weeks to see which is able to distinguish himself.
"Devin is showing that he is a little more seasoned than Malcolm right now, but they're both going to be competing and Antwaan [Randle El] is not going to give it up," Redskins Coach Jim Zorn said. "So we're having great competition at that flanker position, especially with those two guys."
The goal is the same as a year ago, when injuries stunted the preseason progress of both receivers: Coaches are hoping one of the two can line up opposite Santana Moss as starting flanker. That would allow Randle El to shift into the slot, where his speed and size could create matchup problems.
The plan never developed last year, and the Redskins had to rely on James Thrash. But Thrash was released in June, which creates a hole in the passing game, one that some fans and observers aren't certain either Thomas or Kelly has shown he's ready to fill.
"I haven't seen anything from either one of them that says they're starting material yet," said former Redskin Brian Mitchell, now an analyst for WUSA-TV. "I've never seen Kelly. He's been hurt. Devin Thomas last year they said he couldn't learn plays because he was a little overly aggressive. He could ultimately be somebody. What is it that made them demote Randle El and made them promote one of those guys without ever seeing anything from them?"
Though Moss and Randle El combined for 132 receptions and 1,637 yards a year ago, the team is hoping to spread the ball around more and develop a deep threat. Last season the Redskins ranked 28th in the NFL in receptions of 20 yards or more and 29th in receptions of 40 or more.
Thomas and Kelly both say they've improved since last season and are ready to prove it to coaches.
Thomas, who had just one start and only 15 receptions in his rookie season, spent part of the offseason working out privately with quarterback Jason Campbell. The biggest knock on Thomas last season was that he struggled with routes, timing and the pace of the game.
"I had to learn that you can't go out there and just try to burn everybody," Thomas said. "You got to get the routes right. I worked on that aspect of my game more than anything."
He also says he's in much better shape. When Thomas failed the team's pre-camp conditioning test last year, he drew the ire of Zorn, a mistake Thomas made sure not to repeat this year. Wide receivers coach Stan Hixon says now, though, that despite what the test results might have shown, Thomas was never in bad shape.
"Devin is such a high motor guy," Hixon said. "You actually have to slow him down or else he'll lose all his weight. We got to keep fluids in him all the time and keep building him up."
Zorn said he's already noticed at least one big change: "his confidence in the offense."
"Being able to run routes without having to think, 'What do I have to do on this route?'" Zorn said. "He just gets himself aligned, and he's able to concentrate more on coverage and beating the defender than trying to remember what the route is."
Hixon said that though Thomas is fast whenever there's a stopwatch present, the game clock had a way of slowing him down as a rookie.
"A guy like that, a lot of times you know what to do, but you just got to be faster about it," Hixon said. "The more confident you are in your abilities and the scheme, the faster you are. Even though he runs a 4.3-4.4 speed, he wasn't going that fast, especially early on in the season. By the end, he was okay."
Like Thomas, Kelly also says he came into camp feeling as good as ever. He dropped 14 pounds from the end of last season and is practicing at 218. He says he had 11 percent body fat and is now down to six. Unlike last year, any problems right now are not physical.
In his rookie season, Kelly appeared in just five games and made only three receptions. He injured his knee the first week of training camp and never fully recovered. He underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in February.
Kelly said that while he's trying to let go of the frustration from his rookie season, he's still dealing with the lingering effects.
"When you play football, you don't think about injuries until you have them. And then it just becomes part of your reality," he said. "Even after you've recovered."
Kelly says his knee feels fine -- "100 percent" -- but that's no longer the problem. As last season wound down, Kelly become accustomed to favoring the knee and still now, while running routes, the injury is in the back of his head at times.
"It's certain routes that I run that I'm still trying to get into the groove of, running a long distance and then cutting," Kelly said. "It feels good, so I just got to go. I was just talking to someone yesterday, saying, it's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to happen in a day or two. You just got to keep telling yourself every day that the knee is fine and eventually you'll just be out of it."
Hixon says the team plans to bring Kelly along at a slower pace in camp. As with most players who underwent offseason surgery, Kelly will work up to a full practice load, often going full-speed in the morning practice and taking it easy in the afternoon.
In the morning workout Friday, Kelly saw plenty of time on the field in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. When it was over, he and Thomas walked off the field together, both tired from a tough session.
Off to the side, Dwight Thomas caught his son's eye and offered a simple nod. No words were needed.
"He knows I'm proud of how hard he's worked to put himself in this position," the elder Thomas said, "and I know how much he wants this."
Staff writer Mike Wise contributed to this report.