FAYETTEVILLE — Defensive tackle Robert Thomas won’t play another down at Arkansas after being sidelined for the season because of a broken tibia.
The injury hasn’t stopped the Razorbacks from finding a way to make sure one of the team’s captains is still with them on the field the rest of the way.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the Razorbacks would honor Thomas by having someone wear his number the rest of the season. Bielema said he came up with the idea in the aftermath of Thomas’s season-ending injury and the plan began last Saturday when defensive tackle Byran Jones — one of Thomas’ closest friends — traded in his No. 54 jersey for No. 98 during the 52-0 loss at Alabama.
"One of the first things I did after I sat down with Robert after the surgery was that I have this idea, what do you think?" Bielema said. "He became very emotional, as I did, and loved the idea and wanted to have the first one to go to Byran who is one of his best friends and obviously they play the same position, a guy he loves to death."
It’s a small gesture in a season that has gone south because of a five-game losing streak, including consecutive losses by the score of 104-7. But Bielema said Thomas is worthy of recognition after being a valuable leader on and off the field.
Bielema also believes Thomas’ jersey can serve as an inspiration for teammates.
"We’ll rotate through the rest of the season and hopefully give somebody a little bit more incentive that week to play in his honor knowing that he will never get to play for the Razorbacks," Bielema said.
The Muskogee, Okla, native was enjoying the best year of his career with 31 tackles, 6 tackles for losses and 3 1/2 sacks before suffering the broken bone in his leg against South Carolina two weeks ago. He underwent surgery the next day and has started a rehabilitation process expected to last between three to four months.
Thomas met with the media for the first time since his injury on Wednesday and said he has come to grips with the end of his college career. But he also was overwhelmed by Bielema’s idea to keep his jersey on the field the rest of the season.
"That was an honor. That was a blessing," Thomas said. "I never thought that anything like that would happen for me around here. I’m just thankful for that."
Bielema said Thomas and the coaches would decide which players are selected the rest of the season. Bielema indicated it wouldn’t necessarily be limited to defensive players because Thomas’ jersey is an eligible number, theoretically leaving quarterbacks, receivers or running backs open for discussion.
Thomas said that probably wouldn’t be the case because of the jersey size.
"Me being a big guy, only the bigger guys could wear it and then only like the D-linemen could wear it," Thomas said. "I kind of have to pick the bigger-frame guys."
Jones, who spent most of his career working alongside Thomas on the defensive line, said he was honored to be the first player chosen. The senior said the two have been through the "highs and the lows" together the past three seasons. They started six games together this season before Thomas’ injury on Oct. 12.
Jones said Thomas called him the day before Bielema revealed the jersey news to the team and asked if he would wear it against Alabama.
"The relationship me and him have, I would do anything for him," Jones said. "I wore his jersey in honor of Robert Thomas."
Of course, Thomas would much rather be on the field trying to help Arkansas dig out of its current funk. The Razorbacks have allowed 50 points in consecutive games for the first time in school history and 179 total in four SEC games.
But Thomas has maintained an active role in trying to help end the ugly slide end. He watches film with the defensive line and continues to motivate teammates as Arkansas prepares for the final four games of the regular season. Defensive end Chris Smith – who also is one of Arkansas’ team captains – said Thomas has been vocal, giving the defensive line a "pretty hard talk" after the Alabama loss.
Smith said 98 isn’t exactly his number of choice, but would be honored if he became the next player selected to wear the jersey. He said Thomas has earned everyone’s respect this season, making an impact on and off the field.
"It’s just sad that he got hurt and he’s out for the season," Smith said. "Guys look at that and say, ‘Play every play like it’s your last because you never know what’s going to be your last play.’ That’s one thing he always keeps in my head. …
"We’re going to go out there the rest of the season and play hard for him."