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10 questions with New Orleans Saints running backs coach Joel Thomas

Thomas enters his sixth season with Saints

Joel Thomas enters his sixth season as the Saints running backs coach after 15 years of coaching in the college ranks. Since arriving in 2015, the club has led the NFL with 94 rushing touchdowns. The 2019 season was a success for Thomas as the backfield was headlined by Alvin Kamara and newcomer Latavius Murray. Under Thomas' watch, Kamara became the only Saints running back selected to three Pro Bowls, and the only Saint to be selected in each of his first three seasons. New Orleans also received significant contributions from Murray, who accounted for 872 total yards and six touchdowns. New Orleans acquired running back Ty Montgomery this offseason, adding talent and depth to the position group.

Q: Talking about some of those veteran guys like Kamara and Murray, what have your conversations been like with them and what are your expectations for them this year?

Thomas: With those two guys, it's not so much teaching the playbook like I am with some of the other guys. It's more so of, alright, here's where we've got to tweak, do whatever we have to do to keep polishing our game up that maybe we lose some of those reps during the OTAs. That really starts back at the beginning of the offseason when we review the film and look at the things that we did well and the things that we need to correct and get a little better so we can be a better offense.

Q: Alvin (Kamara) sometimes will post a video of his workouts and it looks like they're kind of outside the box. I was curious on your thoughts on some of the things he does during the offseason to kind of prepare himself.

Thomas: I think what he does as far as some of the training, it's things that push him that maybe a normal player couldn't do or maybe do to that level. I always liken him to where he's kind of a cat, where he's always landing on his feet. He's always trying to find ways to tweak and find a way to be cutting edge, yet it's something that's going to make him and our offense better. I enjoy getting the videos and all that stuff every once and a while of all the things that he's doing to stay on that level. Now, obviously, the coaching is like, ah, let's be smart now about what you're doing, but he's a guy that knows the limits, where to push them and when to back it off as well.

Q: With somebody who's had as much success as Alvin has had in his first three years, going into year four, how do you challenge him to continue to be better? What's kind of the message for him?

Thomas: I think the message, there's obviously not a lot of challenges, obviously we're going to keep on pushing, but I think he wants to put forward a better season than he put forward last season, plain and simple. That's the true sign of a competitor, they're either happy with what the last season was or they want to keep on getting better. I know in his heart and in his mind, what he put out wasn't 100 percent him all the time as far as his best football. We always have videos as coaches that we can go back and teach off of and review. Veteran players are reflective and they look at how they play, they know when it's been great and when it hasn't been up to their level as far as the output. That's the first thing, we're going to continue to review the film, where can we get better and then obviously when we get back out there, whether it's a new scheme, whether it's polishing up just a traditional outside zone scheme on what we can do better as far as the runner, eyes, decision-making, landmarks, all those little things. That will come about when we get back into camp.

Q: When you're in that first year of the running back rotation that you had last year with Alvin and Latavius (Murray), does it take a while to understand their rhythms and how they work together and that sort of thing and can you actually use that to benefit this year?

Thomas: I think we will be able drop and go back to last season and the pace that it took to get those two going on the same level. Obviously, with the injury where Alvin missed a couple games, our hand was pushed to play Latavius a lot and he played outstanding. He played outstanding all season long. What everybody was so accustomed to was the style that Mark (Ingram) had and then you bring in this runner that almost looks like a tight end at times as far as his height and his size. That took some getting used to, but I think the so called yin and yang with these two now is something that we've got a good grasp on and obviously Latavius earned every bit of his playing time that he got and he did a solid job of stepping in when his number was called and then obviously working hand-in-hand with Alvin when they were both healthy.

Q: Ty Montgomery has displayed a versatile skillset throughout his career, how do you see him fitting into the offense?

Thomas: "'m a fan of Ty Montgomery, yes he's on our team, but I was (familiar with him) before he got here just because he can do everything that is required within our playbook. Obviously, he has a route running skill-set that he had in college at Stanford. I coached against him when I was at Washington and he was at Stanford so I was very familiar with him as he came into the league, but he's got the ability to run routes. When you look back at it, he has only been a running back for five seasons so that is where I see the piece of putty we can hopefully mold into what we want him to be within our offense. I love the versatility out of the backfield. We can line him up in empty. We can put him back there as a single back seven-yards deep. I don't think he's gonna be put in a single position and that's what he does. He's along the lines of maybe a (Travaris) Cadet, maybe a little better running body just because he's 220 pounds. Pierre Thomas, obviously Pierre didn't have all the route skills coming out of college, but (he was) a solid running back. The meetings I've had with him, he is smart, obviously Stanford educated, but he's smart, very coachable. I like what he's bringing to the table as far as what we've got with this signing.

Q: I think we can assume you miss the personal interaction with players and coaches and being at the office, but when is the last time you've been able to spend this much quality time at home, and have you developed a daily routine?

Thomas: First of all, I've never been at home this long (laughter). We all look at the situation that's going on and you try and find the bright lights that you can draw on. I've got an 8-year-old and a 7-year-old. And it's been great. I've been able to cook dinner every night. I've been able to tuck them into bed every night. I'm involved with – (little league) baseball's been going again now, so I'm way more involved with that. Just the little things that you might miss. And our offseason is good to where I'm around a lot, but it's been time like no other being around these guys. And to go back on what you said, I got into coaching because of the social interaction, and the hands-on work, and the ability to coach and develop, and to have the daily talks. It may not be about football at times. But that's a part that we all as coaches, that's built into us and we are chomping at the bit that the time comes that we can all be together and focus on the 2020 Saints.

Q: To piggyback off of that, we've talked to some assistant coaches and they've said one of the positive things to come from these virtual meetings has been able to be more detailed and meticulous. Is that something you've experienced with some of the running backs this offseason?

Thomas: Well, we don't have the ability to physically demonstrate certain things, so you have to be on point with your words. You might say something, and in all these calls, I might be talking with a video running where they cannot see my face. They see the actual play. So I am sitting there describing something with my hands or with my feet or whatever, so I have to come back and retrace and show them again. And really, that comes into play with the newer players that are involved with Tony Jones and Ty Montgomery. Maybe what they hear is a certain zone step or footwork, they may notice something else from a previous place. Whether it's with the Jets, the Ravens or with Tony (Jones Jr.) with Notre Dame. So you have to be more detailed and more on point, not that we weren't at the office, but you want to make sure that when we come back in there, we're all on the same page.

Q: What are some of your early impressions on Tony Jones Jr.?

Thomas: I reflect back to the last conversation we had when we were going over protections – he's pretty smart. Smart football players find a way to get on the field early. Now that being said, you have got to compete and show it with the pads on. But I like his size right now. I think last time we talked he's in that 223 range. He's got a little bit of a thump to him. I think there's going to be things that, you know, when we get going here in camp (that we have to work with him on). I think we've got to develop his hands a little bit. Nothing that's detrimental. And then obviously the pass protection (we will work with him on). What was asked of them previously (in college) and what probably (will be) asked (of) them here in camp would be a little bit more, but I like the attitude. I like what he brings to the table, as far as the intelligence. And you know he has played at a high level as far as football goes (at Notre Dame). So I don't think he's going to have this, 'All of a sudden I'm in the bright lights of the NFL.' Who knows (where he) stands for his first game. But I'm looking forward to getting him out there in the field and seeing what he brings to the table as far as helping our group out.

Q: In your own words, what's kind of the importance of that fullback position in the offense, and was it important for you all to bring back guys who have experienced in the offense after Zach (Line) retired?

Thomas: First of all, we use it (more extensively than a lot of other teams). Obviously, we find different ways to use that position come gameday. Because we can carry an extra tight end (to serve some of the blocking duties). We can carry a fullback. There have been times we haven't addressed that before or whatnot or (John) Kuhn in the past. But when they're on the field, we're always looking for a guy that if we're lead blocking, and we look for a guy that's going to clear a hole or widen the hole and that's where Zach excelled. He did a great job. He gave it to a strike point, he'd strike the other stinger, he'd roll his hips and you would cover guys up and remove them. With Mike (Burton), when Zach retired, we knew Mike was out there and he was the target. He was having a good OTA, good training camp until you got hurt. And then boom, the competition was gone because we were really optimistic about what he could do to push Zach. And then obviously he had the injury and it forced him to sit out most of the preseason and obviously we had to only carry one (fullback) at that time. So yeah, I felt it was important to get a guy in here that's familiar with our offense and coach (Sean Payton) and (Director of Pro Scouting) Terry Fontenot did a good job of getting him in. And at the same time, he played well for Washington when he did play. He did a solid job and felt that the player that was on film from Washington was the one that we saw during training camp. And then at the same time, you know, Ricky (Ortiz), he stepped in there for a couple of games and the guy came in and he played a significant amount of playing time having really no practice. He was on scout team the week that he came up when Zach's injury sidelined him for the season. So Ricky is still a young player that is developing at the same time, so it will be a fun battle when training camp gets rolling.

Q: Having used Taysom (Hill) in the way you guys have the last couple of years, does that kind of force you to look at every player that way? Or is this something that always happens?

Thomas: I mean, Taysom my thinking is like the 'Aha' moment. Like here we go, as far as, um, the ability to do a lot, almost everything. Everybody jokes, I'm just not going down that road, but, you know, with, with Ty, and I think any player, I think we're always trying to find a way to really get the best out of that person, whether it's Ty lining up in the slot, Ty lining up in the gun, Ty lining up in the backfield, seven yards deep. Things we do with Alvin, I can see Ty coming in and hopefully challenging Alvin in some of those spots as well, making competition there as far as some of the route running stuff.