Sedrick Thomas takes most pride in his diligently crafted football IQ; he says it’s “the biggest part of my game.”

But the hardworking senior Idaho safety surely doesn’t mind an assist by chance. Ironically, he has some fortuitous positioning to thank for his most memorable play, and really, his Vandal status.

Near the close of the third quarter in an Oct. 19 game, Idaho State quarterback Matt Struck didn’t see Thomas, who was hanging tight in his boundary spot, just about 15 yards downfield with a few yards between him and the sideline.

Thomas hardly had to move; the ball shot right into his chest.

Next thing he knew, he was whizzing 36 yards the other way, casting Struck aside at ISU’s 5-yard line, then breaking the plane with his second career pick, his first career touchdown.

“I was just as shocked as everybody else,” said Thomas of UI’s second pick-6 and third defensive touchdown in its eventual 45-21 Big Sky win. “I was in position to make the play, and I made it. Can’t complain about that.”

A day later, he noticed another bit of good positioning in a still image circulated online by Vandal Athletics.

It showed the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Thomas within a few steps of the end zone, and Struck falling nearby. Standing in the background were Thomas’ uncle and father, both of their faces painted with amazement — not far off from becoming joy.

“It was big, especially having them on the sideline, right to my left,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even know they were there. I didn’t even see them.”

Towering on the right was Thomas’ father, Tavis, a longtime correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison in California whose abode in the Golden State was, well, fortuitous.

Before his prep career began, Thomas happened to decide on moving 2,500 miles away to stay with his dad after a childhood in Douglasville, Ga., where his mother still resides — she ultimately watched plenty of her son’s Sun Belt Conference away games.

“I felt like it was just time to go live with him,” Thomas said. “I wanted to take it upon myself to spend my high school career with him, and create that relationship.”

Thomas took a cross-country chance, and ended up starring at Pleasant Grove High (Elk Grove) alongside running back Isaiah Saunders, who’d later cap his career as UI’s No. 10 all-time rusher.

The pair became inseparable. Thomas, being a year younger, “looked up to him, because when I moved to California, I was an only child.”

“I talk to Isaiah every day. Like, every day,” Thomas said.

A 2015 high school graduate, Thomas was unclear on his next step. He sensed his Division I potential — the junior-college route was out of the question — so he tried his hand as a walk-on at Sacramento State, the local school.

“It wasn’t the right fit for me,” Thomas said. “I still wanted to prove to myself and the people who doubted me that I was a D-I player.”

Saunders was already at UI, and Thomas was looking to transfer. Some nudging later, Thomas walked on with the Vandals in the spring of 2016.

Since then, he’s worked his way up from special-teamer, to on-scholarship, to a third-year staple in the UI secondary, a much-improved group that was in need of much improving after last season.

The Vandals’ passing defense ranks third in the Big Sky in yards allowed per game (238.5) and sixth in efficiency (132.5), both vast upgrades from 2018.

“We had to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Thomas said. “Ever since we did, the mentality came. ... When we actually started to believe, that’s when it started clicking.”

Thomas, originally a cornerback, has been a core element in it all, considering his aforementioned “football IQ” and a “smooth transition” to Idaho’s drop-down safety spot, starting around three weeks ago.

The Vandals (3-5, 1-3 Big Sky) lost one contributing safety to transfer, and two others — Davontae Ginwright and Mujeeb Rufai — have missed chunks of time for undisclosed reasons.

“We felt that’d be the best thing for our unit,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said of Thomas’ move to safety, where he’d played intermittently last year. “He gets in position to produce. He’s contributing in a big way to the defense.”

The astute Thomas has claimed the function of “quarterback of the defense.” He spots concepts, positions linebackers and swiftly signals cornerback coverages. By “produce” Breske’s not referencing Thomas’ knack for form tackling, but his hampering of offenses with his reads, which he applies deftly in stationing himself and others.

“The only group I don’t talk to is the D-line,” said Thomas, who admitted he misses the CB thrill of a one-on-one. “I let linebackers and corners know what routes to expect based off tendencies I see in film.”

The fifth-year senior, who got his first career tackle in UI’s 2016 bowl win, is a stabilizing complement to the sound play of standout corner Lloyd Hightower. They’re two of the Vandals’ oldest players, and two of only four remaining who saw the field on that December 2016 night, when UI topped Colorado State 61-50.

They absorbed instruction from such former defensive-backfield standouts as Kendrick Trotter and Dorian Clark, plugged away simultaneously, and eventually, have furnished a friendly, beneficial feud as DB veterans.

“I came here in the spring (of ’16), and he came here in the summer,” Thomas said. “Ever since, we’ve just been working, competing to see who can have the better career, really.”

Against the Bengals, Hightower snagged a sideline pick that went for 6 in the first quarter. Afterward, Thomas jested that he might be next.

Thirty minutes later, he again found himself in the right spot. His dad, too.

Colton Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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