APTOS — Skill, patience and blind faith paid off for defensive back Zeke Thomas.
Thomas endured a two-year gap between his freshman and sophomore seasons after Cabrillo College suspended football operations following the 2019 campaign for a rules violation. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help.
He returned to gridiron with renewed vigor in the fall, and shined as one of only two sophomores on the Seahawks’ youth-laden squad.
After the season, he received offers from Lincoln University, Missouri Valley College, Ottawa University and South Dakota School of Mines, but remained patient. He was hopeful that a better offer would come along. One did.
On Jan. 24, following a visit to UCLA, he posted on Twitter that the Bruins made him his first D-I offer. Nearly two months later, he signed a National Letter of Intent. Thomas on Saturday committed to compete for the Bruins beginning in the fall of 2023.
“I’m more than excited to be able to continue my football career at UCLA,” he wrote in a text message. “I’m more than grateful for this opportunity, especially being a local kid from Santa Cruz.”
Santa Cruz County has sent dozens of football players south to extend their careers over the past two decades, but nearly all of them have competed at the NCAA Division III level. Thomas is the first local to commit to UCLA’s football program since Brendon Ayanbadejo did so in the late 1990s. The former Santa Cruz High and Cabrillo star linebacker played for the Bruins from 1996-98 and enjoyed a 10-year NFL career.
The Bruins, who will leave the Pac-12 Conference to join the Big Ten in ’24, went 9-4 last season under coach Chip Kelly, including 6-3 in conference play. They ended their season with a 37-35 loss to Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
Sergio Escobar, the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, said Thomas always wanted to test himself against the best competition. Now, he gets that chance.
“I think the number one thing about him is he’s resilient,” Escobar said. “For him to take two years off, the hurdles he faced. If would’ve been enough to make most players want to fold. But he stayed with it and believed in himself. And he trusted us. He was a big leader for us, and he did things the right way. He did everything he was asked to.”
In the fall, Thomas was named an all-Coast Conference first-team selection as well as a Region II All-California first-team defensive back by the California Community College Football Coaches Association.
“He has great vision and good instincts,” Escobar said. “I know he has good hands because he’s show them in practice. He has the ability to go up and get the it. And his quickness is pretty deceptive for a guy his length.
“He’s got the intelligence. Our defensive package is pretty complex. Week to week, we gave him a lot of different things, and he adjusted seamlessly.”
Thomas, a Soquel High alum, played safety his freshman season for Cabrillo in 2019. When he rejoined the program, he did so with a new coaching staff and a new position. He moved to cornerback.
He made 48 total tackles, had two forced fumbles and nine pass breakups for the Seahawks (2-8).
Escobar said Thomas’ numbers took a hit because opposing quarterbacks refused to throw to his side of the field.
“They respected his skill set,” he said. “They respected his ability. I think he only gave up five catches all year.”