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The key: Jeff Thomas turning into a star for No. 21 Miami

(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

By TIM REYNOLDS

AP Sports Writer

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) There's only one method of slowing down Miami wide receiver and returner Jeff Thomas that's been absolutely proven so far this season.

Thing is, breaking his car key isn't really an option for Hurricane opponents.

While juggling a schedule Tuesday that was already loaded with morning practice, a midday test and afternoon class time, Thomas - the most explosive player for No. 21 Miami through three games - couldn't actually get anywhere. The ignition key to his car somehow got bent, and Thomas broke it into two pieces while trying to straighten it back out.

So that left him going nowhere. But on the field, as one of the nation's leaders in all-purpose yardage, it's a very different story.

"It's really been fun so far," Thomas said. "This year, I just want to show people what I can do, both when I have the ball in my hands and when I don't have the ball."

He's been showing plenty so far, and will look to do so again Saturday when the Hurricanes (2-1) host FIU (2-1) in the first matchup of the schools with campuses eight miles apart since 2007.

Thomas ranks sixth among all FBS players in all-purpose yards per game while averaging just 19 touches. The five players ahead of him in that stat category have averaged three times as many touches - 57 per game.

He's averaging more than 28 yards per catch and return, the best among all FBS players with at least 10 opportunities so far in 2018, and the speedster from East St. Louis already has five plays that have gone for more than 40 yards.

"If it's a `go' ball, he's tracking 95 percent of those down," Miami quarterback Malik Rosier said. "He's just a guy that has elite speed. The problem with that for defenders is you can't put one-on-one coverage - which means you have five people in the box, because now you're double-covering our slot receiver. He does a good job of running routes and he's just getting better and better."

Thomas will be the first to say that he had a great teacher.

He has essentially moved into the role that was vacated after last season by the graduation of slot receiver and returner Braxton Berrios, who arguably was Miami's most important player a year ago when the Hurricanes went to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and the Orange Bowl. Thomas saw 64 percent of his touches last season come off kickoff returns; this season, he's still doing that along with a good bit of everything else.

His 27.7 yards per catch leads all FBS players. But Miami is being somewhat judicious with Thomas; he's on the field for a ton of plays, but the Hurricanes aren't forcing the ball his way unnecessarily.

"So far he's been very productive as a return man, as a ball-catcher and as a runner," Miami coach Mark Richt said. "If we keep that up for a whole season, that's a wonderful season."

Some of Thomas' catches have been spectacular - a few leaping along the sideline, a couple others coming after spinning around at the end of a route in an effort to find exactly where the ball was. Teammates have marveled, noting that he's already made some catches on balls that looked like they would be falling incomplete.

Thomas is enjoying the attention, but insists that he doesn't think he's peaked yet.

"It's a good start, but that's all it is," Thomas said. "I've just got to stay positive and keep working, so I can get to the top."

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Updated September 18, 2018

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