The Mean Green is headed to its fourth consecutive bowl appearance on Tuesday, Dec. 14 in New Orleans behind the performance of the nation's leading rusher. Yet, the name of the nation's leading rusher isn't Patrick Cobbs. Freshman Jamario Thomas took over as running back for North Texas after Cobbs, the leading rusher in 2003, was sidelined with an injury. Although unable to play, Cobbs has quietly remained a presence on the 2004 Sun Belt Conference Championship team.
by Stephen Howard
Patrick Cobbs would never gloat about it, but last season he had toppled nearly every rushing record in school history.
Cobbs quietly led the country in yards and points per game and did it without making too many waves on the national scale. That was just fine with Cobbs who just went out every Saturday and left defenders and the record books in his wake. Opposing defensive coordinators sure paid attention to Cobbs. He was certain to give them plenty of sleepless nights in 2004 after putting on nine pounds of muscle in the off season to hurdle the few remaining feats that still awaited him.
All that would change with an innocent two-a-day handoff just 11 days before the season opener at Texas. In the blur of popping Mean Green helmets and fluttering grass, Cobbs shattered the bone in his right thumb along with the heart of every Mean Green fan.Broken but undeterred, Cobbs would try to play through the pain with a black cast on his hand. However, a knee injury two weeks later made it official that for the first time since third grade Cobbs would be watching his football team from the sideline.
“This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through," said Cobbs. "It’s really tough sitting around watching other people do your job."
Hobbling around the sidelines this season Cobbs looked more like an engineering project than a football player. With a cast on his right hand and a brace on his left knee that made the scaffolding from the Denton Courthouse refurbishing look like a Tinkertoy set. Through all the pain, Cobbs has been right there with his team. Rather than stand around like a 200-pound cheerleader, he has taken it upon himself to mentor the stable of Mean Green running backs. North Texas has a posse of talented backs and all of them know the play calls, but who better to illustrate the intricacies of the offense than the man that perfected it.
Cobbs helps the running backs learn when to cut, how to read defenses and how to protect their quarterback, all things that he excelled at.
"Having been in the middle of all of that, Patrick can give them even more help than we can," said North Texas head coach Darrell Dickey. "I don't want to take anything away from [running backs coach Bruce] Bell or [offensive coordinator Ramon] Flanigan, but Patrick has been as much of a coach to the running backs as both of them."
Cobbs has developed a special relationship with freshman phenom Jamario Thomas, who has flourished in Cobbs' absence. Thomas picked up right where Cobbs left off and is leading the nation in rushing this year, breaking Cobbs' record with 1,709 yards so far. Thomas has already tied or set three NCAA rushing records and needs just 155 yards to break the all-time NCAA single-season freshman rushing record set by Ron Dayne of Wisconsin in 1996. But, Thomas will be the first one to tell you that he couldn’t have done it without the help of his hands-on professor.
“He has been there when I need him all season, and I really trust him," Thomas said. "I definitely look up to him and I wouldn’t have made it this far without him."
Much like Cobbs, Thomas is a shy, small-town prospect whose eyes were as wide as the Texas sky when he heard the roar of the 83,000 fans on opening night.The two have become good friends since Cobbs hosted Thomas during his recruiting visits to Denton. They are roommates on road trips and Cobbs has been able to help Thomas refine his game.
Blessed with breakaway speed and an unbridled running style, Thomas has a tendency to become erratic on the field. After a run, Thomas jogs to the sideline and asks Cobbs what he could have done better. More often than not, the senior just tells him to settle down and focus on his game.
“Calming him down, helping with his cuts, watching film with him, Cobbs can relate to everything Thomas has been through,” said Dickey. “Patrick is the ultimate team player. He has been right there with Jamario, and has been his biggest supporter all year.”
The North Texas football program has come a long way with the addition of these two stellar running backs. The Mean Green will be attending its fourth straight New Orleans Bowl after a third straight unbeaten season in the Sun Belt. A member of every one of those championship teams, Cobbs has been in rehabilitation for the last four months trying to strengthen his knee back into playing shape. Cobbs runs daily, does a pool workout routine and is on a weightlifting regiment. He is already back up to his pre-injury squat thrust of 640 pounds.
Cobbs knows he will have to get back into shape to compete with Thomas for the running back position next season, where the Mean Green will have the two previous national rushing champions with room for only one in the backfield. Coaches and players agree that it is far too early to determine what the team will do about the situation next year. But, Flanigan says that while you hear some schools complain about a lack of talent you won't hear him grumble about having too much.
He says Cobbs is the perfect fit for any offense and that the team will find a way to get him the ball next season.
“Patrick is a football player. What he has, you can’t time it and you can’t weigh it. He is a tremendous athlete with great vision and talent, but the biggest thing that Patrick brings to the field is that he is a football player," Flanigan said. "He loves the game and he loves to compete and he loves to do what ever it takes for this team to win.”
Not only is he a football player, he is a scholar in the classroom as well. In May, Cobbs will graduate with a degree in applied arts and sciences and will enroll in grad school at North Texas with the hopes of some day being an athletic director.
Trying to take these injuries as a blessing, Cobbs continues to work at coming back next season. The training staff slates his full recover for late December, and Cobbs says he will be more than ready by that time. Until then, he will continue to mentor Thomas and the Mean Green running backs and do anything he can to help the team win in New Orleans.
“I wish I was out there playing, but I couldn’t be more happy watching Jamario play like this. I’m not the kind of person that gets caught up in myself,” Cobbs said. “My goal is to come back next year and get a fifth championship ring.”