OAKDALE -- Spencer Thomas didn't worry about reading defenses as a freshman. A step ahead of his peers, physically and emotionally, he did pretty much what he wanted.
"I could throw without making reads because the defenses were basic," said Oakdale High's 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior. "That changed as a sophomore. My first varsity game, I realized why it was so important to make the right reads."
Freshman teams often rely on two defenses, a base and a prevent, but it becomes more difficult at the varsity level.
Linebackers are just as likely to blitz as drop into coverage, and defensive backs can make man-to-man resemble a zone to deceive quarterbacks.
The only way to tell which linebacker is blitzing, and whether it's safe to throw a crossing route in front of the safety, is to become a fan of the movies.
"I watch a lot of film. I don't want a surprise Friday night, so I want to see everything a defense does," said Thomas, who watches the front seven as intently as the secondary. "Most of our passing is done outside the pocket, me rolling out, so it looks like I'm carrying out a fake in our Wing-T."
If he sees a linebacker focusing on the fullback, ignoring the quarterback as he continues to the sideline after handing off, it becomes an opportunity to exploit later in the night.
He was 5 of 5 for 186 yards and two TDs in a Week 7 win over East Union, and has one pick over his last nine games.
That's forced linebackers to pause a moment, rather than rushing in as soon as the ball is snapped. The extra second can be crucial, allowing Nikk Ryan or Marcus Northcutt to shoot through the hole before the linebacker closes it.
Thomas has led Oakdale to back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 finals, falling to Del Oro each time. A No. 1 seed, Oakdale (10-1) is facing Benicia (8-3) Friday in a quarterfinal game at The Corral.
Film study has played a key role in Thomas' 33-6 record as a three-year varsity starter, but he isn't just watching the defense, either. He can be his own worst critic, pointing out when he fails to carry out a fake or misreads a coverage.
"I watch film every Monday before school, seeing if I carry out fakes, if I find the right receiver, if I make the right decision," said Thomas. "After practice, we watch more film and I watch the defense."
The extra work is paying off not in big numbers, but in efficiency. He's been a perfect passer in four of the last five games, 23-of-26 for 549 yards and seven TDs with one pick.
They're gaudy passing numbers for the Wing-T, which focuses on running it between the tackles and on the edge.
Thomas averages just eight passes a game, but he's good for 20 yards a completion. He helps the run game by providing a genuine passing threat.
Austin Jones is often on the other end. A physical receiver (6-2, 190), Jones exploits his size to shield DBs from the ball and outjump them, and he's third in the Stanislaus District with 792 receiving yards.
While much of the attention is lauded on prolific passers, Thomas said he wouldn't surrender the wins for yardage.
"Oakdale has great history, a great football program, and it's because we run the ball as well as we do," Thomas said. "We pass when the defense is giving us the pass. We'll take advantage if they ignore us."