Early enrollees Thomas, Cavil standing out

NORMAN, Okla. -- Safety Ahmad Thomas and receiver Dannon Cavil recognized an opportunity at Oklahoma. With wideout Kenny Stills and safety Tony Jefferson declaring for the 2013 NFL draft following their junior seasons, a starting spot and playing time opened up for the Sooners at both positions.

The lone freshman early enrollees who have fully participated in spring football, Cavil and Thomas are already making an impression on their teammates and coaches. It started with their smooth transition into the program during winter workouts.

“He's handled the workouts,” head coach Bob Stoops said of Cavil shortly before spring football began. “That's when you can really tell if a guy is ready for it, and he's gone through all the workouts like he's a junior.”

Thomas was the same way.

“He handled winter workouts like someone who’s been around for a couple of years,” nickelback Julian Wilson said. “He didn’t handle them like a freshman.”

The duo continued to impress this spring by displaying playmaking ability that could earn them on role on the Sooners’ offense and defense this fall. Thomas is a hard hitter who is displaying terrific instincts at safety. The departures of Jefferson and Javon Harris, OU’s starters last season, leaves a hole in the secondary and Thomas is making a case to slide into that gap.

“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” cornerback Cortez Johnson said. “He’ll play a big part in our defense, most likely this year.”

Senior safety Gabe Lynn is taking on a mentoring role with Thomas but has already noticed his natural ability. Thomas' instincts have impressed along with his hunger to learn.

“He has good instincts,” Lynn said. “You really can’t tell he just came in, it fits right in. Ahmad wants to learn more so it’s very easy to help him, he’s asking questions all the time.”

While it’s still early, Thomas has proven playing college football at OU isn’t too big for him and seems to be making a unusually smooth transition to Big 12 football after leading his team to a state championship at Miami (Fla.) Central High School last fall.

“He’s played in Miami, so coming up here and playing in Oklahoma isn’t any big deal to him,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “He’s got the maturity that you don’t see in a lot of high school kids his age, so he has a physical presence about him and he moves around the field and his instincts take over, and that’s what you like to see.”

Meanwhile Cavil, who stands 6-foot-5, is displaying unusual athleticism and speed for a player his height. An injury contributed to Cavil sliding under the radar until his senior season of high school but a solid year piqued the interest of receivers’ coach Jay Norvell and Cavil could end up being the hidden gem in OU’s recent recruiting class.

“He’s been making some plays,” said Wilson, who has faced Cavil a few times in one-on-one matchups. “He’s a long guy with long speed. He’s got deceptive speed.”

With Stills and Justin Brown moving on, Cavil made a late decision to sign with the Sooners instead of California because he knew he’d get the opportunity to impress and learn this spring, helping his chances of playing as a true freshman.

“Dannon is always ready to learn, always in the ear of one of the players wanting to know what to do,” receiver Durron Neal said. “He’s a competitor, he competes every day he’s out there. He’s going to be a good player, he’s big, tall and physical.”

The last word is a key one. Most freshman step on campus and don’t have a great feel for how physical college football demands them to be. Yet, teammates have used the word physical to describe both freshmen.

“He’s a big thick guy who is in there making plays,” Wilson said of Thomas. “Real physical, he’s a freshman but you don’t know it by how he’s built.”

And with the departures of Stills and Jefferson, this new duo couldn’t have come along at a better time for the Sooners.