Speed got Starling Thomas V into college football. Speed got him into the starting lineup at UAB. Speed is the primary reason he landed on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List, which is an annual list honoring the most athletically gifted players in college football.

To be truthful, though, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Thomas’ strength is what ultimately helped transform him into one of the top cornerbacks at the Group of Five level.

“He’s naturally fast,” said Lyle Henley, UAB’s Director of Athletic Performance for Football. “He was a 10.4 100-meter champion in high school. How does a guy like that gain muscle - he’s gained 25 pounds - and continue to get faster? That was him focusing on the things he needed to do.”

Thomas’ journey through UAB, or football in general, hit a couple of speed bumps. He tore the ACL in his knee during the second round of the 2016 Class 6A playoffs during his junior season at Ramsay High, which is less than a mile from the UAB campus. Ramsay went on to become the first Birmingham City Schools team to win a football state championship since Banks High’s title run in 1974. Thomas returned the following season and capped his high school athletic career by winning the state 100-meter title.

In 2019, Thomas tore his ACL in the same knee. This time, though, he did not go to the sidelines. Instead he never left the starting lineup.

The injury occurred in a 38-14 victory over Old Dominion on Oct. 19, 2019. Five games remained on the regular season schedule. The Blazers also played in the Conference USA championship game and the New Orleans Bowl.

He played in every one of those games.

“Many people did not know that it happened during the season because I kept playing,” said Thomas, who sat out the 2020 season after having offseason surgery.

His ability to play through pain leads us back to his strength.

“He tore that knee and was able to play with it because he was so strong,” Henley said. “Taking that year off and getting him to focus on little things to keep him from getting hurt like that again. He was already naturally strong, so it was all about making an impact like change of direction. We sat down with [UAB trainer Dan Springer] and came up with a plan. We focused on the little things with him.”

Thomas attacked the rehab and returned to the starting lineup for the entire 2021 season. He finished with 41 tackles, two interceptions and pass breakups. Seven of his tackles and five pass breakups came in a win over Louisiana Tech. He earned honorable mention on the All-C-USA team.

“I never thought of it as a setback, really,” Thomas said of his second knee injury. “It was just something I had to go through to get to this moment.”

He arrives at his final season in better shape than ever. His spot on the Freaks List, which is published on The Athletic, primarily came because he’s been clocked at 24.16 miles per hour on the GPS.

“When I made the Freaks List, it was crazy because of everything I went through,” Thomas said. “It just shows how much hard work, how much dedication I put into it and how bad I really want it. Every day, I came up here and do two-a-days with Coach Lyle and [former UAB and NFL defensive lineman] Otis Leverette and Dan. I was up in the training room, trying to get myself together. It finally came together, my body filled out and started to grow, starting to really feel like myself again.”

Thomas said that everything he does is for his mother, Stephanie Williams, who died after a long fight with cancer in October of 2018.

“Every day I try to live for her,” said Thomas, who is on track to finish his degree in criminal justice with a minor in African American Studies at the conclusion of the fall semester. “I try to do everything that she’d want me to do. I play every snap for her, she’s my driving force.”

He also plays for the city of Birmingham.

“Growing up in Birmingham, kids never said I want to go to UAB, it was always Alabama and Auburn,” Thomas said. “When they took the program away, the whole city of Birmingham felt it and everybody jumped behind them. I’m just blessed and fortunate enough to be one of the ones who came to UAB and helped turn the program around. Now, kids actually want to play for UAB, and we can be somebody that kids look up to. Everybody always asked me about UAB. I just tell them it’s a family and we win championships. If you like winning, then come here.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com. Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.

Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.