Notre Dame recruit Cree Thomas has big dreams and knows better than most what it takes

PHOENIX — Cree Thomas sat in the lower bowl of Allegiant Stadium, in the same end zone where Patrick Mahomes hit Mecole Hardman to win Super Bowl LVIII. The Notre Dame cornerback commit was close enough to grab the red and gold confetti that rained down afterward, not that he wanted to commemorate the winners.

Thomas was there to see San Francisco 49ers defensive back Isaiah Oliver, whom he has considered a step-brother for almost a decade. Like Thomas, Oliver played at Brophy Prep, a miniature Notre Dame built in a Spanish colonial aesthetic and dropped into metro Phoenix. Like Thomas, Oliver ran track and set the school record in the decathlon. Thomas finished first at the state meet in that event as a freshman. And like Thomas, no matter how good track was to Oliver, football was always going to take him to college and whatever comes afterward.

In Las Vegas, Thomas saw “afterward” up close.

“The things I dream about doing, he’s literally doing them right now,” Thomas said. “He just went to the Super Bowl. He’s done it. He’s been there. Of course, I want to get through college, but the dream is the NFL. That’s the top. Seeing the Super Bowl, that’s as big as it gets. That’s where I want to be one day.”

Oliver played special teams during the Super Bowl, finishing his sixth NFL season after being drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Falcons in 2018. What Thomas saw in his step-brother wasn’t so much a road map to the NFL as the next page in an atlas he’s been assembling since the first time he put on a helmet, laced track spikes or swung a bat. And that’s why the next step for Thomas has never felt out of reach, no matter the sport or the level.

When his father, Leon Thomas, introduced him to tee-ball as a 3-year-old, a family friend connected the toddler with a former Major League Baseball umpire to help him learn how to swing a bat. When Cree Thomas wanted to get into the decathlon, he picked up coaching from the mother of an Olympic gold-medalist pole vaulter. When Thomas got more serious about football in middle school, his father coached him to three youth league state championships and a national championship played in Hawaii.

Then there’s that connection with Oliver, whose father, Muhammad, is in a long-term relationship with Thomas’ mother, Vanessa Zebell. Muhammad Oliver played football and ran track at Oregon before a six-year NFL career.

“Cree plays from a place of love and passion. If he loves it, I’m gonna feed it,” Leon said. “He’s approaching me as a kid to throw the football. It was more how much he wanted to do it. Because if we keep feeding it and don’t mess this up, it could go somewhere.”


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In the long view, Notre Dame will be next. In the short term, it’s Brophy track practices with some football conditioning mixed in. Competing in the decathlon forces Thomas to specialize in being a generalist. Last Monday, track started with javelin throws and ended with 400-meter sprints on repeat. Next week it might be pole vault and hurdles.

This all fits Thomas, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound athlete who has always brought a little bit of everything to everything. He grew up doing theater. He has picked up golf. A photography class during his sophomore year at Brophy turned him on to the medium. Now he’s interested in exploring it as a major at Notre Dame, although he has an eye on the Mendoza College of Business, too.

That’s all on top of being an all-state cornerback who also plays safety and returns kicks and punts while pushing for a return to the state track meet after sitting out last spring with a quad injury.

So yes, Cree Thomas is coming for it all. He understands what it takes to get there, too

Kevin Scott put the Brophy football team through a battery of speed and agility drills last Thursday, with the players filling their seventh period with a gym credit. The Brophy defensive coordinator, former NFL defensive back and Stanford graduate was easy to spot amid the high school players’ huffing and puffing, wearing a dark blue Notre Dame T-shirt with gold lettering. It was a gift from arguably the best defensive back to come out of Brophy.

“I’m still talking to Ben (Morrison) all the time, and I’m like, ‘Ben, where’s my gear?’” Scott said, laughing. “I got a practice squad T-shirt a couple years ago from him. I still rock it. I’m still waiting on the jersey.”

Morrison has already gifted one Notre Dame jersey to Brophy; the green one from the Cal game his freshman year is now signed over to head coach Jason Jewell. Scott should get one next, considering his impact on every defensive back to come through Brophy. Top prospects might seek out personal trainers and gurus at other schools. For defensive backs at Brophy, there’s no need.

Scott helped attract Morrison to Brophy in the first place, his credibility pre-established after playing in the NFL at the same time as Morrison’s father, Darryl. It was a similar story for Thomas, who understood Scott’s resume before working with him. When Oregon offered Thomas a scholarship as a freshman before he’d played a down of varsity football, it verified that faith.

Morrison and Thomas considered enrolling at powerhouse Saguaro High before matching with Brophy. Both wear No. 20. Both broke into the lineups as sophomores. The comparisons between Morrison and Thomas are inescapable, more a story for the cornerback approaching his final year of high school than the one likely entering his final season of college.

“I guess it’s a little hard for Cree and probably a little unfair. Ben’s probably going to be a first-round draft pick. I don’t want Cree to go in and if he doesn’t have the immediate success that Ben did, think that he’s failed,” Jewell said. “It’s just not typical for a guy to come in and play at Ohio State as a true freshman. Most colleges would feel successful with a recruit if they got 20 starts in a career. Ben’s going to get 35 starts, probably declare early and be a first- or second-round draft pick. Those are exceptions, not the norm.”

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Benjamin Morrison signed with Notre Dame from Brophy Prep in the 2022 class. (Matt Cashore / USA Today)

For Thomas, the comparisons to Morrison are more platform than anchor. He takes it as a compliment that anyone would hold up his game against a cornerback who shut down Marvin Harrison Jr. Maybe that’s why Scott has no problem contrasting the games of Thomas and Morrison.

Thomas, a four-star recruit ranked as the No. 2 Class of 2025 prospect in the state of Arizona in the 247Sports Composite, is longer than Morrison, a frame that puts him between outgoing cornerback Cam Hart and the potential All-American Morrison. Thomas had the more productive junior year in interceptions. But what separates Morrison is the ability to see what’s coming before it does.

Morrison grew up in an NFL household and learned how to watch film before many of his teammates had even logged into Hudl. That background made Morrison an aberration, ready to play at Notre Dame by midway through his first preseason camp. Thomas might need more time, although how much could depend on his final year at Brophy working with Scott.

“I preach film work, and that was what put Ben above most guys,” Scott said. “He had a pretty good idea of what he was gonna see. He played the game in his mind, he played the game in practice, he played the game while he was watching film, so when he was able to go out there and play the game, he’d already done it.

“That’s what I’m working with Cree on, to be more of an aggressive player, to take more risks and more chances and believe in what he sees. You might see it, but I need him to believe it because when you believe it, you might get beat, but more than likely, you’re gonna make a play.”



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Thomas made plenty last season. Brophy went 10-3, and its star cornerback made all-state.

“You get the Ben Morrison comparison; I’m extremely thankful for that,” Thomas said. “Because he’s an amazing, amazing athlete and … person, on and off the field. Definitely flattering. I definitely know I have a lot of work to do to just be at his level. And it’s cool to just have a guy that I can look up to and say, ‘Man, one day if I keep going, I can be playing how Ben is playing.’”

Notre Dame would welcome that.

And it made sure Thomas didn’t look elsewhere to meet that goal.

Adam Sargent told Thomas to come closer.

The cornerback was seated on the other side of a long conference table during Thomas’ first visit to Notre Dame last spring, joined by his parents. Sargent, Notre Dame’s associate director of academic services for student-athletes, was there to size up Thomas the student, not the cornerback.

As Leon Thomas remembers it, Sargent stared at his son for nearly two minutes. Then Sargent said football players don’t see him smile until they graduate and told the story of how he was a former Notre Dame lacrosse player, a car accident put him in a wheelchair and his Notre Dame degree helped create this second act.

“So impressive,” Leon Thomas said. “Sargent was extremely impactful in the decision-making.”

Cree Thomas visited Notre Dame twice more before making a commitment that felt like a fait accompli from the moment the Irish offered a scholarship. Both parents were sold on that trip. They tried to keep their opinions to themselves. Thomas still picked up the scent. Back home in Arizona, Thomas and his father made a spreadsheet of the schools under consideration, ranked in five categories — academics, exposure, coaching, etc. — with points assigned for each.

“Like nerds,” Leon Thomas said, laughing. “He was leaning toward Notre Dame. The points matrix was too.”

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Cree Thomas is one of Notre Dame’s 17 Class of 2025 commitments. (Pete Sampson / The Athletic)

Cree Thomas committed to Notre Dame on Nov. 20, an homage to his late grandfather Carl Zebell, who died three years earlier to the date. That No. 20 was also his jersey number was just a coincidence.

“Once I went on my first visit last spring there, I was like, ‘OK, this is an amazing place. Probably somewhere I want to be a part of,’” Thomas said. “It was a hard decision, obviously, just knowing that I’m coming here for four years. But I knew I was probably gonna go to Notre Dame.”

Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, recruiting director Chad Bowden, defensive coordinator Al Golden and head coach Marcus Freeman helped close the deal. Thomas said he still hears from Notre Dame daily. Freeman was deeply involved. The staff made him feel wanted, no matter how mutual the feeling. Thomas plans to be back for an official visit the weekend of June 8.

The visit should let Thomas and Morrison reconnect in person. They never played together at Brophy, with Thomas working on the freshman team during Morrison’s senior year. Still, Thomas remembers Morrison reaching out, offering whatever help he needed. Thomas picked his brain on Notre Dame, which confirmed what Thomas already suspected about the place.

They might never be teammates in South Bend, either, with Morrison likely off to the NFL as Thomas enrolls. That’s fine. The connection between the two will endure, from Brophy to Notre Dame and maybe beyond. The comparisons will, too.

“Cree feels like he’s the next guy,” Scott said. “Ben has set the standard. Not only has Cree met that standard, he’s moved that standard a little bit higher. He welcomes it.”

(Top photo: Diannie Chavez / The Republic / USA Today)

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