Features | Friday Night Drive

‘Always around the ball’ Taiden Thomas is a force on Oswego’s D-line

Junior defensive end is one of two starters returning on Panthers’ defense

Oswego junior defensive end Taiden Thomas (89), shown here chasing down a ballcarrier during last season's playoff game at Glenbard West, is expected to be one of the Panthers' leaders defensively this season.

OSWEGO – Taiden Thomas’ size and DNA apparently superseded his natural inclination on the football field.

The Oswego junior recalls his preference was to run with the football in his junior tackle days. As soon as he had a conscience, he was looking at footballs to get his hands on.

“My mom has said that I threw a spiral when I came out of the womb,” Thomas said.

Now Thomas instead spends his time chasing quarterbacks.

He’s proven a natural.

The athletic, rangy defensive end burst onto the scene as a sophomore last fall on the Oswego defensive line. Thomas made 41 tackles, had seven sacks and seven tackles for loss. No. 89 in blue, white and orange routinely was a terror to opposing teams’ quarterbacks and running backs, opening eyes in his first varsity season.

“He is just always around the ball,” Oswego coach Brian Cooney said. “We have a phrase, you might not make the tackle, but you make the play. He will do the technique and run the tendencies we need in order to be successful on the defensive side, taking on the block in the right way, absorbing a block or two in order to let somebody else make the tackle. He does the small things, is extremely intelligent, hustles. A year ago I wouldn’t have thought he’d be an all-conference selection, but he earned it.”

Thomas admitted varsity football was challenging as a sophomore, but he’s been playing up an age for what feels like his whole life.

In youth tackle he was double striped on his helmet, meaning he couldn’t catch or carry the ball and had to be an offensive or defensive lineman.

“It sucked. I always wanted to run the ball. As a kid, that’s what you want to do,” Thomas said. “Freshman year I played some tight end but when I was moved up to varsity we had [Michigan recruit] Deakon [Tonielli] there, so maybe next year. Right now I’m just sticking at defensive end, working on getting to the quarterback.”

That skill runs in the family.

Thomas’ dad played high school football in New York, and in college. Also a defensive end, he set his school’s sack record.

“He gives me tips and advice,” Thomas said. “A lot of credit I give and continue to give to [assistant] coach [Andrew] Cook and all the coaches for developing me. I take that information, soak it in.”

Thomas said he first noticed teams gameplanning to slow him down against West Aurora last year. The fullback came in and tried to chip Thomas on every play, the first time he learned he had to adjust.

Thomas has spent the offseason trying to increase his flexibility, and getting stronger has been a main priority. He’s also worked to perfect his technique and hone his pass rush moves.

“He’s worked to put more moves in his toolbox, and not just rely on the things that he is comfortable doing,” Cooney said. “The teams we play, they will see those tendencies, the linemen we go against will see those techniques. There is a variety of ways you can get to the ball and he’s learning that.”

Thomas is one of just two returning starters on the Oswego defense. Senior linebacker Braedon Hellinger is the other. That defense will get a stiff test right off the bat with Neuqua Valley and talented quarterback Mark Mennecke, who put up 37 points on Oswego in last season’s opener.

Thomas is continuing on a strong recent tradition of Oswego defensive linemen. Noah Shannon is now at Iowa, and Jack Hugunin at NIU among the Panthers’ many talented D-line alums. Thomas has already been voted a team captain as a junior.

“He doesn’t need to be told to get to work; he’s self-motivated,” Cooney said. “He’s dedicated, the kind of leader you want. Nice to have for two more years.”

Thomas could be incorporated into the offense this season in double tight end packages with Tonielli, the headliner of the Oswego offense.

Tonielli, who committed to Michigan over the summer, had a team-high 32 catches for 385 yards and two touchdowns last fall in his second varsity season. His pass-catching abilities have made Tonielli one of the state’s top prospects, but he’s focused on other areas in advance of this season.

“Right now really the thing I’ve tried to work on is my blocking and getting faster, that’s the big thing for me,” Tonielli said. “I know that [blocking] is a lot of what I’m going to be doing at the next level.”

One of five starters returning on Oswego’s offense, Tonielli has looked the part in the preseason of a third-year starter.

“He’s an athlete and his leadership is much improved, he’s been selected by teammates as one of our three captains,” Cooney said. “He’ll be doing some punting, long snapping, tight end, doing his blocking things there, running routes, playing defense in some prevent packages. He loves every bit of it. He looks like a senior.”

Tonielli is aware that he will be a top priority for opposing defenses, but doesn’t mind the extra attention.

“A lot of it will be how the defense is playing us. They’re going to have guys on me and I expect that,” Tonielli said. “That gives opportunities for guys like Jordan [Katzenbach] and Nick [Scott] to have a field day.”