True freshman receiver Clevan Thomas Jr. did not ask to wear 18. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran surprised the early enrollee with the distinction of the number that has evolved into a status of consequence, distinction, and expectation for the Kentucky football program. The rookie from Miami understands its historical inference and is humbly willing to be judged in context to its storied past.
Full disclosure, I wore the number 18 at the University of Kentucky. However, I did not start the trend of numerical association with on-the-field achievement. That modern-day distinction belongs to Jacob Tamme.
I was no superstar. Nor was I as pretty as Randall Cobb. I am as Kentucky-country as catfish and cornbread but was never mentioned with the same reverence as home-state hero Jacob Tamme. Truth be known; unlike its latest owner Boom Williams, I never rushed for a touchdown in Commonwealth Stadium.
How I came to wear the now-famous number did not develop from some dramatic circumstance. Decades before dual numbers and recruiting decisions were being based off numerical promises, long-time UK equipment manager Tom Kalinowski randomly handed out numbers/jerseys to incoming freshmen in an assembly line type of operation at the start of training camp.
I didn’t care what number I wore. I moved to the back of the line so my vainer teammates could fight for their aesthetic preference. After the jerseys were divvied out in a piranha feeding frenzy type situation, there was just one QB acceptable number that remained on the table. That number just so happened to be 18. Today at the University of Kentucky, 18 is coveted and worn as a badge of honor.
I recently sat down with the UK’s newest number 18 and discussed spring practice, jersey expectation, and history. I found Clevan Thomas Jr. to be a humble yet confident young man who is eagerly taking advantage of an opportunity to earn early playing time. But, like with most true freshman, the learning curve is steep. That has not dissuaded the determined Thomas.
Question: How did you get the number 18, did you ask for it?
Clevan Thomas Jr: “No, I didn’t ask for it. Honestly, I didn’t expect to get 18, I thought I’d get my number which is 8. Coach Gran surprised me and was like, “You got 18.” That’s an honor because of Randall Cobb, Boom, and Jacob Tamme. 18 is really a special number here. I’m going to try to reach that gold standard held here with that number.”
Question: Going back, who are some of the 18’s in UK history that inspired you to be honored to wear the number?
Thomas Jr: “Jacob Tamme and Randall Cobb because they both made it in the NFL. That’s my dream right there. Since they made it, I got to work to make it too. Boom is a great RB who recently had the number 18 too.”
Question: Lots of expectation from wearing 18. Do you feel additional pressure?
Thomas Jr: “Feels good, instead of going out with a regular number that people have to make, the number 18 is already made, proven, and respected. My teammates look at me like, hey that’s a big number and I got to work hard because all the greats had that number. I have to work hard because everybody will have their eyes on that number. I can never really be them (Tamme-Cobb-Boom). I have to be myself. But when I put that number on I have to represent them well, with class and honor. Coach Gran put a lot of faith in me.”
Question: Tell me about your first college scrimmage.
Thomas Jr: “It was real-real fast. I just feel like I can get better. I can always get better. I made some mistakes, coach just told me not to get mad at myself. When I look in the mirror, I hold myself to a higher standard.”
Question: You played at the nation’s highest level of high school football in Florida’s 8A division. How different was Saturday’s scrimmage from football you’ve played in the past?
Thomas Jr: “There is no comparison. Scrimmage was way-way faster. I played in state championships, I feel like that Saturday’s scrimmage was really hard hitting, lots faster. I’m going to get better.”
Question: What is like to have a senior QB like Stephen Johnson, what have you learned from him?
Thomas Jr: “He’s so calm, poised in the pocket. I talk to him about my route running. Without him, I’d be a few steps back in the playbook. I’m honored to play beside him.”
The 18 File
Andy Molls, Safety/Returner, 1979-1982
Program’s 4th all-time leading punt return leader: 524 yards, 1 TD, 12.186 yards per. 87 yard return for TD vs. Vanderbilt in 1981. Led team in INT’s.
Otis Grigsby, Defensive End, 1998-2002
Recorded 18 career sacks, played for Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and Minnesota Vikings.
Freddie Maggard, Blogger, 1987-1991
Has gone on to write 258 Kentucky Sports Radio posts, recorded 48 podcasts, and participated in 5 live remotes.
Jacob Tamme, Tight End, 2003-2007
All-time top pass-catching TE with 133 catches for 1,417 yards. 4th round selection by the Indianapolis Colts. Later played for the Denver Broncos, and currently is with the Atlanta Falcons. All three teams advanced to the Super Bowl.
Randall Cobb, Quarterback/Wide Receiver/Returner, 2008-2010
One of the all-time fan-favorites, Cobb scored 32 total touchdowns. Arguably the best football player to ever play at the University of Kentucky. Played quarterback, running back, receiver, and kick/punt returner. Drafted in the 2nd round by the Green Bay Packers where he continues to excel.
Boom Williams, Running Back, 2014-2016
Rushed for 2,511 career yards (7th in UK history) and 18 touchdowns. Owns top two single-season averages per rush attempt: 7.10 in 2015, 6.84 in 2016.
The origin of 18’s status was recently a topic of discussion on the Kentucky Sports Radio show. Ryan Lemond indicated, in a round-about-way, that I had started the tradition. Our founder and boss Matt Jones simply snickered in disagreement.
When I asked Clevan Thomas Jr. about which former 18’s he admired, the freshman WR understandably failed to mention my name. I showed him an old picture. His response, “(Laughter…laughter, and some more laughter) no way.”
My place in UK history has been cemented. I am the Fredo Corleone of Kentucky Wildcat 18s.