The Almost Forgotten Man

Linebacker Dontarrious Thomas talks about how he came to Auburn and the outlook for the 2002 season.

Hoover, Ala.--Forget that Dontarrious Thomas is a preseason All-American.

Never mind that he led the Auburn team in tackles last season and had more tackles than anyone in a Tiger uniform since 1997.

Just think what would have happened if his plans would have come true. He could be playing for the Georgia Southern Eagles right now as a walk-on. However, because of some hustle and inspired evaluation work by Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall, he became a Tiger.

As a senior in Perry, Ga., Thomas was one of the top athletes in the area. A standout in football, basketball and track, he was always a player the locals talked about as one of the best. But that didn't make the major colleges crowd around offering him scholarships. The summer before his senior year, Thomas decided academics were more important than athletics so he spent his time attending engineering camps around the country. By the time the summer was finished he was buried on the recruiting landscape under a sea of high-profile prospects who had made their marks on college campuses around the country at football camps and combines.

Thomas is surrounded by reporters during Wednesday's festivities at the 2002 SEC Media Days.

He did however attend a basketball camp at South Carolina and was impressive enough to earn a scholarship offer to go to Columbia. But the then 6-3, 183-pound Thomas says that he knew if he was going to have a long-term future in a sport it would be football. The problem was that no major program looked like it would give him a chance in that sport. That is until Auburn stepped in. Talking with a friend coaching in the Georgia high school ranks, Nall was asked to watch Thomas play and the rest is history. Getting an offer from Auburn, Thomas said he knew that was his future.

"I was real surprised," he says with a smile. "I wasn't like the normal player. I didn't go around telling people that Auburn offered me. I had other schools like N.C. State, they said they were going to offer, but they backed out. A lot of schools said they were going to offer, but they back down and never call you. I was basically pretty much feeling the same way. I was just focused on getting my grades right so I could go to Georgia Southern and walk on."

Entering Auburn at under 190 pounds, Thomas said he was surprised when the coaches told him he was going to be a linebacker. Head coach Tommy Tuberville said that he saw something in Thomas that he saw in his top players at Miami. Comparing him to former star and current NFL player Jessie Armstead, Tuberville predicted way back then that the move would pay dividends and it has.

"Coming out of high school I never thought I would be a linebacker--period," Thomas noted. "I was small and then when they made the transition and let me play linebacker it was kind of tough, but I knew it was a challenge. It was a great challenge, but I just worked hard and tried to take advantage of the situation."

That he did. After winning a starting job during his redshirt freshman season, Thomas has never looked back. Now the anchor on a defense that is expected to be the strength of the Auburn team, the now 234-pound Thomas says that the team is on a mission this season under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.

"The defensive scheme is pretty much the same," the All-American candidate says. "It's a true 4-3. The terminology is just a little different. Last year we had rovers and whips, this year we have wills and sams, which is basically outside linebackers...He came in with the same intensity that Coach <(b>John) Lovett left us with," Thomas says of Chizik. "He kept the team motivated. We had a little downfall at the end of the season, but he picked us back up and told us we still have another chance at it this year. I think he's a great coach."

One of the changes in the defense has Thomas moving from jack linebacker to a true outside linebacker position. While it is different he says that it won't affect the looks of things too drastically. "Jack was pretty much an outside linebacker," Thomas says. "It's basically the same as what I play right now so I'm real comfortable. I played cornerback in high school so I'm not too scared of being out there with some of the quick players. I'm looking forward to it."

One thing the defense and team as a whole has to do this fall is forget the disappointment that the close of the 2001 season brought. Losing games to Alabama, LSU and North Carolina to finish the year and miss out on a chance to play in Atlanta for the SEC Championship, Thomas says the Tigers just have to move forward and get it behind them.

"We talk amongst ourselves, but you can't dwell on that," he says about the finish. "If you do you lose confidence. Things happen for a certain reason. You just try to look forward and prepare for this year. All the games that we lost we use for motivation. You put them on the same level for motivation. We just want to come out and be another contender for the SEC West.

"The last part of last season was a shocker. Things happen for a reason, I guess, but we just put it behind us. We've just got to get focused for this year. This is the year we feel that we have a good chance of contending for the SEC West."

If they do you can bet that the defense will be big part of things. Led by Thomas and his cohorts at linebacker, including Mark Brown and Karlos Dansby, the speedy Auburn defense hopes to get the season started positively against a potentially explosive USC offense on Sept. 2 in Los Angeles.

"This year we have a lot of experience," Thomas notes. "We have eight guys coming back. We have some guys that handled key situations last year. We're real confident in our defensive scheme after everything that has happened to us. We're looking forward to this year to put on a great performance."

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