"He's the black mamba, but you know, I believe I'm the fastest person in the country," Clay said, recalling the 2010 race. "I'm a speed guy. I like to commit myself on beating anybody."
But on the gridiron, the comparison shows a greater gulf than just a few steps. Thomas is in the NFL, and Clay is in fall camp with the Utes, his third school of an arduous odyssey through college football. The senior has one year to prove that he's more than just quick feet.
And he's not the only one with that pressure.
His journey mirrors that of Ute safety Tevin Carter, who was Clay's roommate at Cal for their freshman seasons before they both left Berkeley, went to separate junior colleges, and eventually wound up at Utah. Carter also, strangely, has track wins over Thomas, notably beating him in a 200-meter final in 2009. After failing to qualify academically last season, he's got one year to show what he can do in the defensive backfield.
It's no accident their friendship survived the years since they left the Golden Bears: There were times they were leaning on each others' shoulders. Clay also struggled to qualify academically out of Mt. San Antonio College, taking a math class that delayed his planned January arrival until late last month. Carter kept encouraging his friend when Clay was worried if he might not make it on campus.
"Kaelin's like a brother to me, and we talked every day," Carter said. "I went through the same thing. It was depressing for me. You just gotta stick with it, you know, and things will happen."
Carter is penciled in as a starting free safety, a role he felt he always was born for, but wasn't permitted to explore at Cal. While the Golden Bears coveted his speed and size as a receiver, he always saw himself as a defensive-minded player. Eventually, he decided to quit the team to pursue safety opportunities at L.A. Southwest College.
Carter loves to run in pursuit, and he loves to hit. Safeties coach Morgan Scalley loves taking advantage of that passion, finally loose after Carter spent the spring dealing with a foot injury.
"He's a try-hard kid that's got a good football mind, but he's also a guy who learns best by experience," Scalley said. "We need him out here on the football field. We need him healthy, and I'm finally at that point where he can do that with us."
Clay has the fortune of playing the position he's always played, but the competition is much more considerable and experienced. While Clay, in his own words, is trying to get into "Utah shape," he faces a battle with incumbent Delshawn McClellon and intriguing freshman Jameson Field. Receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield said Tuesday he thinks Clay is making some good plays early, but is still trying to get up to speed with the offense.
Kyle Whittingham did acknowledge Clay should get looks returning kicks and punts, calling him "a natural" after Tuesday's practice. Carter has seen what the 5-foot-10, fleet-footed Clay can do first-hand.
"It's crazy, man. He's electric," Carter said. "He can go. He's one juke away, one block away, he can take it as far as he needs to go."
What both Clay and Carter seem to share is a patience and maturity that comes with being through rocky times. Both left Cal after a year, both had to prove themselves in junior college, and both struggled in class.
Having been through all that, they now know how they want to carry themselves in their final chance to play college football.
Teammates have noticed.
"I just appreciate how [Clay] is a good listener," wideout Dres Anderson said. "He's not one of those JC guys who comes in thinking he knows everything. He's one of those guys, he'll really listen to what you have to say and any advice you have. He's working it on the field."
Perhaps most importantly, both are firmly focused on the present rather than dwelling on how long it took them to finally get a chance to shine.
"Ultimately I got here, and I'm with my team and I'm ready to win," Clay said. "That's my focus right now."
Utes' camp corner
Highlights • Travis Wilson floated a gorgeous deep ball down the right sideline to freshman Kenric Young, who ran stride-for-stride with sophomore Reginald Porter. Young went up and met the ball at its highest point, but so did Porter, and as they fell to the ground, Porter ripped it loose for an incompletion. The coverage couldn't have been tighter if they wore the same jersey, and Young was one of the fastest preps in the nation over 200 meters last year.
Standout • It's hard not to like sophomore defensive end Pita Taumoepenu. The only thing faster than Taumoepenu's pass rush is his smile. Our mission is impartiality, so of course we're neutral about it, but others seemed to enjoy Taumoepenu's exuberance after he batted down a Thompson pass at the line. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he's small for a defensive end, but size doesn't matter when he breaks free to the backfield, and he does so frequently.
Position spotlight • Besides Porter, coach Kyle Whittingham highlighted the improvement of all his returning corners, and freshmen Casey Hughes and Travonne Hobbs also took snaps with the ones and twos on Tuesday. "We went from a position that was pretty lean last year to a position that is pretty well-stacked," he said.
Quote of the day • Told that the media is only allowed to watch the final 20 minutes of practice, Whittingham feigned astonishment. "How come? Is that all [sports information director Liz Abel] will let you in? She runs a tight ship."