Tyreek Hill rocketed down the sideline in the Chiefs’ 30-27 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, a 23-mile-per-hour blur in white. He put distance between himself and the nearest Bronco with every step, until he finally downshifted as he approached the end zone for an 86-yard free-kick touchdown.
But before he scored, Hill had turned to his left, as another blur in white — a slightly smaller one — caught up to him. Hill saw his buddy, De’Anthony Thomas, and raised his left hand. The two high-fived as they sprinted into the end zone, a memorable punctuation for a memorable moment that brought a smile to Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub’s face.
“I loved it because the guys were having fun, and I think that’s a great thing,” Toub said. “It wasn’t a choreographed deal. It was an impromptu deal that happened, and guys were having fun.”
To that end, few Chiefs seem to be having more fun on special teams these days than Thomas, who has gone from being inactive for the first four games of the season to one of the Chiefs’ six or so three-phase special teams players. His high-five with Hill illustrates the enthusiasm he has been playing with since he got an opportunity to see the field on special teams against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 6, and why Toub has felt comfortable increasing Thomas’ workload.
“Every rep he gets, he cherishes it,” Toub said. “I mean, he’s having a blast out there. That’s the difference.”
While Thomas has always been a special teams contributor since he arrived in Kansas City as a fourth-round pick 2014, prior to this year, he had only served as a kick- and punt-returner. But with the arrival of Hill, the team’s fifth-round pick this year, Thomas has seen Hill usurp his punt-return chances and most of his offensive workload, too. Over his first two seasons, Thomas received a total of 146 touches, a number that has fallen to nine this year.
But Thomas has taken the chance for more reps this year on special teams and run with it. At 5 feet 8 inches and 176 pounds, he not only served as the Chiefs’ primary kick-returner on Sunday — he had a crucial 41-yard return in the Chiefs’ overtime win Sunday — he also served as a gunner on punts (where he helped forced a muffed punt by Jordan Norwood) and as a contributor on kickoffs and even field-goal block, where he is one of the edge players who tries to block each kick.
“He plays hard,” said safety Eric Murray, one of the Chiefs’ core special teams players. “The position he’s in, he’s making plays — and he’s hyped about it. He’s energizing everybody.”
Rookie inside linebacker Terrance Smith, another special-teamer, agreed.
“De’Anthony’s the type of guy, he’s all heart,” Smith said. “You can tell who really loves playing the game and who gives everything. De’Anthony’s that type of dude.”
Toub could really tell that was the case against the Jaguars, when he was forced to play Thomas on kickoffs for the first time due to a numbers crunch, and he watched as Thomas split two big guys on a kickoff and make the tackle.
“I mean, he went nuts,” Toub said. “He was having fun in the meeting room too when we were watching tape.”
Toub was also impressed by the fact Thomas got blown up later in the game and bounced back up, which convinced him Thomas had the toughness to be a special-teamer.
“Once he made that tackle and he showed he wasn’t afraid, then we kind of developed that role a little bit,” Toub said
Toub credits assistant Brock Olivo for his work with Thomas, who isn’t very big but uses his speed and finesse to make plays while also showing physicality when he has to.
“He’s not afraid to stick his head in there,” Toub said of Thomas.
Thomas, who smiled wide when asked about his recent special teams work — obviously taking pride in it — said his ability to be a contributor in several new facets is related to his football versatility.
“I’ve been doing it all my life — I’ve learned how to adapt,” said Thomas, who now has two special teams tackles, tied for the sixth-most on the team. “It’s good to know both because you never know where you’ll end up.”
That could have been said about his career several months ago, when Thomas mysteriously missed the final six games of the regular season. Four of those missed games were directly related to a concussion he sustained in a 33-3 win over the San Diego Chargers last November, but when he was cleared from the concussion in December — and expected to play against Cleveland — he was instead placed on the non-football injury list as the team noted he was dealing with some personal issues.
Thomas tweeted a month later that he was still feeling the effects of the concussion, which seemed to at least shed some additional light on the situation, though Reid quickly shut that down in an interview.
Regardless, Thomas worked out with the Chiefs throughout the offseason, made the team out of training camp — despite the fact the Chiefs were facing a roster crunch at receiver — and has seemingly regained the trust of the coaching staff, as he’s been a consistent contributor for the better part of two months now.
“I’m sure he missed (the game), because he’s playing with a hunger now,” Toub said of Thomas. “You can tell.”
You can also tell that Thomas and Hill — who Thomas once called “the rookie” — get along pretty well, as Toub noted Thursday and as the amusing high-five Sunday showed.
“Me and DAT (Thomas), we go way back,” Hill explained. “I know DAT … y’all aren’t there to see it, but we clown at practice.”
And as long as Thomas is having fun and making plays on special teams, Toub plans on using him whenever possible, which is just fine with Thomas.
“I just feel like right now, I’m learning a lot about myself and the game and how I approach it,” Thomas said. “It’s all a learning experience and I’m loving it.”