NU football practice, 9.5.2017

Deontre Thomas was on of three true freshmen to make his Nebraska debut Saturday against Arkansas State.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- Deontre Thomas isn't afraid to admit he felt a bit edgy.

In fact, he smiles as he tells you all about his eventful Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

As he emerged from the pregame Tunnel Walk, the Nebraska true freshman nose tackle said he had the chills — the good kind of chills, the ones that occur when something happens in life that seems simultaneously surreal and meant to be.

"Honestly, I was nervous," Thomas told reporters following Tuesday's practice. "I'm not going to lie."

A graduate of Mustang (Oklahoma) High School, Thomas conducted the interview as three Husker sophomore defensive linemen — DaiShon Neal and twins Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis — stood behind him, as if to protect and comfort the rookie as he faced a half-dozen media members.

"They're my brothers. I look up to them," Thomas said. "We do everything together. This is my squad. They tell me what to do and I do it."

Whatever they're telling him, it seems to be working well. Thomas, linebacker Avery Roberts and wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey were the only Nebraska true freshmen to see action in Saturday night's 43-36 victory against Arkansas State.

In fact, on the game's second-to-last play, with Arkansas State threatening at Nebraska's 11-yard line, Thomas beat his man and applied pressure on the quarterback.

"I want improve on everything," Thomas said. "I had some opportunities that I didn't make happen. …"

He wants to close the deal next time. Get the sack. Then get more and more of them.

He admits he didn't necessarily anticipate significant playing time would come this quickly in college. He's listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind junior Mick Stoltenberg of Gretna.

"But I came in and put in work," said Thomas, who had three unassisted tackles in his debut. "I'm going to keep putting in work and see where I go from there."

Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Thomas carries himself differently than many true freshmen.

"He's very confident. He's tough," the coach said. "He loves football and he's got real high football intelligence. With that said, we can't crown him or anoint him."

In fact, Diaco said, Thomas made some mistakes against Arkansas State "that created a problem for our defense. He has to drill down on his job and doing his job. Young players tend to get captured with the ball. They can't keep their eyes off the ball and end up floating around looking for it rather than just drilling down on their jobs."

Thomas evidently drilled down hard last season at Mustang High, recording 79 tackles, including eight sacks, as the Broncos finished 8-4 and reached the Class 6A state semifinals. Ranked as the No. 11 defensive tackle in the nation by 247Sports, he turned down scholarship offers from Michigan, Texas A&M, TCU, Ole Miss, Arizona State and Arkansas, among others.

Although he was heavily recruited in high school, Thomas realized early in preseason camp last month that the rise in level of play was significant.

"I was like, 'This is real. This is real,'" he said.

Listed at 6-foot-3 in Nebraska's official media guide, Thomas said he weighs 275, which is 10 pounds more than he weighed as a high school senior but still relatively light for a major-college nose tackle. The 6-5 Stoltenberg weighs 310.

How does Thomas overcome his lack of heft?

"With my strength, my hands, my technique — what coach (John) Parrella teaches me," he said of the second-year Nebraska assistant.

As Thomas spoke, Khalil Davis nodded his head in approval. "Little brother" was handling himself well. Thomas will need to continue in that vein Saturday at Oregon (1-0), which features an offense that likely will be even more potent than Arkansas State's spread attack, which riddled Nebraska to the tune of 497 yards and 32 first downs.

"They're similar teams, with similar tempos," Davis said. "Last week is really going to help us."

Thomas may not be quite as nervous this time around — not that those nerves last Saturday were a bad thing.

"It was special," he said of the experience.

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