The word of mouth was always there. Coaches of strong New Jersey high school football programs don't automatically show up at AAU basketball practices to speak to skinny freshman point guards about joining their football team.

But word had gotten around town. This boy named Jahad, who didn't play freshman football at Elizabeth High, supposedly he could change directions at full speed. If the kid was initially a little elusive off the field, that didn't compare to what he was like with pads on.

Jahad Thomas wasn't avoiding the school team. He told the coach he was always planning to join up when it was time to play varsity.

"I was always a football guy," Thomas said this week.

He's clearly that now. Thomas has a starring role in maybe the biggest early-season surprise story in college football. After Temple's practice Tuesday, Thomas was surrounded by cameras and reporters. His rise this season exactly parallels that of his team. Never mind that it was no sure thing that Thomas would even be Temple's top tailback this fall. He got the job and ran with it, for 135 yards against Penn State, then 193 yards at Cincinnati, plus a 100-yard kickoff return.

Even this year, Thomas started Temple's preseason practice wearing a yellow jersey, indicating that he plays offense and defense - tailback and cornerback. The coaches would plug him in as needed, although he began this fall camp as a first-team tailback. The question was where he'd finish it.

No complaints from Thomas.

He had been expecting to play running back. Did he press the issue with Owls coaches?

"No, I didn't feel like that was my place, to go into coaches demanding anything," Thomas said this week.

Temple quarterback P.J. Walker, on the other hand, felt like it was his place to put a bug in their ear.

"He definitely pressed the issue," Thomas said.

That's the other part of this story. Walker was the quarterback at Elizabeth High. He had been the hot recruit. He'd committed to Temple, and it wasn't until a state playoff game that Owls coaches became convinced Elizabeth's senior tailback also was worth a scholarship. Four touchdown runs in a playoff game will do that.

Thomas was a cornerback reserve as a freshman at Temple, then he got a backup shot at tailback as a sophomore. He showed enough to find the word "explosive" always attached to his name. It was before that season that Walker talked up his old teammate.

"It was me just letting the coaches know that we have a guy who is capable of making plays," Walker said after a Temple practice. "Give him one chance, just to see what he can do."

Walker and Thomas were from different neighborhoods in Elizabeth - Walker uptown, Thomas downtown. They were friends and the backbone of successful basketball and football teams. During hoops season, Walker was more of the shooting guard - he liked to hang out around the three-point line. Thomas ran the show at point guard. He didn't score much, just got his teammates the ball.

Walker was known as a gym rat, always watching film. Interestingly, both the football and basketball coaches at Elizabeth said Thomas was the kind of guy who wasn't afraid to talk to his teammates when things needed to be said. He wasn't loud about it. It was just his way.

There's nothing fancy about Elizabeth, including its football complex. Trucks roll by on Route 1, just past the maintenance shed and the auto-glass place and the brick twins. The football produced there is good but it's not a Friday Night Lights type of place. Ask a maintenance worker about the two guys from Elizabeth now starring at Temple, he'll tell you, "I'm more of a pro guy."

Ask an older man eating a bacon and egg sandwich at a local diner, he'll know that Temple beat Penn State, but he won't know that Temple's starting quarterback and tailback both came from town.

This was the town that shaped him, Thomas said.

"It's definitely a hard-nosed, tough city," Thomas said of Elizabeth. "Things go on that your average teenager shouldn't see in his day."

Now, Temple coach Matt Rhule will tell you that yes, he heard his quarterback tout the tailback - Rhule had asked Walker about Thomas even during the recruiting process. But it wasn't lobbying that got Thomas on the field, the coach made clear.

"P.J. kept saying, 'He can play running back, he can play running back,' but you know the first couple of years we had to handle depth issues at different positions so he played corner," Rhule said.

Rhule put it this way: "The first move we make is to help the team, the second move is to put you in your best position."

While as elusive as ever, Thomas wasn't a skinny kid anymore.

"I think it's just maturing, development," Rhule said of the final step. "You know he was 170 pounds, even last year he was like 177. It's hard to be a running back at 177. Now he's like 191 . . . When your program gets established, you'd like to redshirt a kid, play him a little bit their second year, then this would be their sophomore year, their first year really playing. We didn't have that luxury before. So Jahad was playing really before his body was ready. You could see the things he could do, but he just wasn't physically ready to do the things he's doing right now."

He's not just making people miss, Rhule said. He's also putting his head down and being really physical. He's not just taking off for 56 yards against Cincinnati and spinning by Penn State defenders.

"We thought he'd be the guy who splits carries - now he's the guy," Rhule said.

Thomas always had some perspective about his path. Go back to his freshman year at high school. Thomas still played football that year. He just played Pop Warner for the last time. There were no playoffs or anything like that on the freshman team, he said. Even then, this kid wanted to play for some real stakes.

NCAA Leader

Temple's Jahad Thomas leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in all-purpose yards with 246 per game.

Thomas ranks third in rushing with 55 carries for 328 yards (164 per game) and 11th in kickoff returns with 5 for 168 yards (33.6 average).

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mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus