Jordan Thomas couldn't stay away from football.
Thomas, the Browns' new assistant defensive line coach, didn't realize that fact until he was out of the game — as a player — for his first time since childhood. He had played defensive end since he was 9 years old all the way through college at San Diego State, but he knew his NFL prospects were low due to his below-average size and production at the college level.
Once his days as a player were over, Thomas was onto a new profession: criminal justice. He earned a degree in that field upon graduation, then entered law school and worked at a law firm.
Football, he thought, was in his past, and it wasn't until he was away from the game entirely when he realized he was wrong.
"I was still having this itch to coach football," he said. "I can always come back to (criminal justice), but I've got to see what I can do with this. I wanted to explore it before it was too late."
Things have worked well for Thomas since that decision.
He joined the Browns' coaching staff last month and is settling well into his first NFL job after spending the last six seasons as a high school and college coach. His first coaching job was at Mission Hills High School as an assistant coach in 2016, and he then progressed to Texas A&M Kingsville in 2017 and returned to his alma mater, San Diego State, from 2018-21.
Thomas' coaching wisdom and success helped him ascend with the Aztecs when he became their defensive line coach in 2020. San Diego State ranked among the NCAA leaders in total defense (third in 2020) and rushing defense (third in 2021 and seventh in 2020) and was 22nd in the nation with 41 sacks in 2021.
For Thomas, coaching the D-line — and developing players beyond football — has always felt natural.
"I think one of the things that has stuck with me in college football is the importance of development in all facets of the athlete you're lucky enough to work with," he said. "You always have to have a 'why' to what you're teaching because when you give a 'why,' that helps solidify the understanding of what you're trying to teach and allows your players to play faster, more aggressively and care-free."
Thomas and Jeff Anderson, the defensive quality control coach, are the only two new coaches to join head coach Kevin Stefanski's staff in 2022. Thomas' coaching philosophy and demeanor impressed Stefanski, who viewed him as a great fit to the culture he's built in Cleveland since he became the Browns' head coach in 2020.
"He checked all the boxes," Stefanski said. "We were really, really impressed with him throughout the interview process. He's got great experience even though he's a young man. He fits our culture and fits what we're looking to do. He and (defensive line) Coach (Chris) Kiffin are excited to get to work."
Even though Thomas reached the NFL in just six years since he first stepped into coaching, he's still treating the job as a learning opportunity to develop his skills and learn even more about the defensive line from Kiffin, a 17-year coaching veteran who's been in the league since 2018.
"He's very understanding, a very good communicator and very detailed," he said. "The thing about football is that there's so much information out there that can be picked up about it, and you get to learn all of it if you're lucky enough."
"Lucky" is how Thomas feels after he initially stepped away from the game following his playing career, but capturing the luck wouldn't have been possible without the hard work and natural knowledge he possesses when it comes to the defensive line.
It's led him to the Browns, where he feels he has plenty to give back to a game he can't stay away from.
"I feel like I have so much left in the tank to give back," he said, "and that's why I'm still here doing it today."