With several of his teammates counting down the days to signing a Division-I football scholarship, Gainesville’s Thomas Sprague boarded a plane bound for Pittsburgh last Friday just trying to find his own piece of the pie.
Sprague, a linebacker and the Class AAA Defensive Player of the Year, was going for a visit to Youngstown State University, a Football Championship Series program rich in football tradition and less than an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh in Northeast Ohio.
Despite racking up a grand total 478 tackles the past three seasons, Sprague was still looking for his first Division-I scholarship offer. And he had every intention of committing to Youngstown State — which won four Division I-AA National titles during the 1990s under current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel — if he liked what he saw.
Before he got back on a plane for Atlanta last Sunday, after seeing the campuses facilities and meeting players and coaches, he gave a resounding yes to the Penguins. He signed his National Letter of Intent with Youngstown State on Wednesday.
“I really liked Youngstown State a lot,” Sprague said. “It’s a real blue-collar type of place.”
What is most intriguing about Sprague’s search for a college scholarship is the apparent lack of interest from big colleges. The past two seasons he led the area in tackles (173 as a junior at North Hall, 194 as a senior at Gainesville). Sprague’s tackles far surpassed that of other defenders garnering significantly more attention for the big names in college football.
And both coaches Sprague played for in high school (Gainesville’s Bruce Miller, and North Hall’s Bob Christmas) would vouch for his abilities as a player.
“Thomas is a throwback to the 1960s at linebacker, like Dick Butkus or Mike Singletary,” Miller said. “He’s a hard-nosed player and just so dadgum coachable.”
“He (Thomas) definitely has a great mentality to play linebacker,” said Christmas, who started Sprague at linebacker as a sophomore and junior. “He’s as instinctive as any linebacker I’ve coached at North Hall.”
Still, with great stats, all-state accolades, good grades and test scores in order, he never drew consistent attention from Division-I programs before he landed at Youngstown State. Western Carolina offered twice during the season before withdrawing its offer, and Georgia Southern appeared interested until it filled their needs with three commitments at linebacker for this recruiting class.
Sprague says the interest he received from programs such as Indiana and Marshall fizzled out as the season progressed.
The only thing that Miller could think of that could count against Sprague was shoulder injuries during the season. Still, Gainesville’s coach thinks there’s no reason that Sprague was getting passed over by Division-I schools, until Youngstown State jumped into the picture in the final weeks before National Signing Day.
“It’s time for college coaches to stop putting players into a cookie cutter mold,” Miller said. “Thomas is a great football player and just a wonderful kid.
“It’s amazing that he’s the Class AAA Defensive Player of the Year, and he can’t get an offer from a Southern Conference School,” Miller said, referring to Western Carolina twice withdrawing its offer.
“Thomas’ highlight tape is as good as anyone’s, but he doesn’t completely fit the mold coaches may be looking for,” said his father Jeff Sprague, who was an offensive lineman at the University of Florida.
Remarkably, Sprague never got bitter during a recruiting process that seemed to be passing on such a diamond in the rough. He shouldered some of the blame for a lack of offers as a result of not taking part in enough scouting combines.
“I can’t worry about it,” Sprague said. “I know that recruiting is a business and the coaches have to do what they feel is best for them.”
As signing day neared, Sprague started to take matters into his own hands. He sent out highlight tapes with the help of Gainesville assistant coach Todd Wofford. Two weeks ago, Wofford sent Sprague’s tapes to an acquaintance and first-year Youngstown State assistant coach, Andre Coleman, who immediately got it into the hands of defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Rick Kravitz, who liked what he saw enough to invite Sprague for a campus visit.
One weekend visit to Northeast Ohio was all it took for Sprague to find a college home at Youngstown State and end any frustrations that may have started to build. Now he’s just excited to get to his new home and do what he’s always done best on the football field: hit people.
Being surrounded by physical sports has always been second-nature to Sprague, even though he didn’t gravitate to football until the seventh grade. Sprague grew up watching rugby, which his father took up and played for around 30 years, once he left football behind.
Growing up, Thomas was exposed to soccer, baseball, basketball, along with skateboarding, says his father. Even before he got involved in football, Thomas’ dad always saw his son had a mentality more fitting for that of a linebacker. Thomas wasn’t fearful of contact as a kid on the basketball court, and soccer was no different.
“I remember when Thomas was playing pee wee soccer, he asked when he was going to get to him ‘em,” Jeff Sprague said.
His father said it was a natural fit for his son when he stepped out onto the football field in the seventh grade, despite only playing one season as a fifth grader at Mount Vernon Elementary previously. In the eighth grade, Thomas weighed 120 pounds, but never shied away from contact.
Two years later, he was 175 pounds and starting at linebacker for North Hall’s team that reached the Class AAA state semifinals at the Georgia Dome, finishing the season with 111 tackles.
As a senior, he hit more ball carriers than any other defender in the area with 194 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, three defensive touchdowns, two sacks, and his personal favorite: a blocked punt against Flowery Branch in the state semifinals, sending the Red Elephants to the state title game.
“Thomas came right in at Gainesville this season and took a leadership position,” said Thomas’ teammate Taylor Stowe.
Now that his college scholarship is signed and he knows where he’ll play next season, Thomas doesn’t have worry about whether he’ll get a chance to keep playing football. He knows now that he gets four more years to try and make quarterbacks and running backs as uncomfortable as possible for the next four seasons.
“We’re happy for Thomas and know that Youngstown State is a good fit,” his father said. “They got a good football machine going.”