"We have a great team coming back next year," Thomas said. "We have some goals to accomplish and I also have some goals to accomplish. Hopefully I can have a better season. It wasn't as tough of a decision for me. I knew pretty much that I was going to come back. I'm just looking forward to next year and helping this team accomplish some big things."
Dontarrious Thomas and Karlos Dansby
Arriving at Auburn looking more like a safety than a linebacker, Thomas has worked his way into one of the top linebackers ever to play for the Tigers. Bulking up to his current weight of 235-pounds from 185 when he arrived, Thomas has 271 career tackles in his three seasons on the Plains and is just 53 tackles shy of tying Kurt Crain for 10th on the all-time charts. After struggling through the 2002 season with a knee injury that kept him from being full speed much of the year, Thomas said his decision wound up being a pretty easy one to return.
"Once I got back from the bowl game I knew I was coming back so I haven't checked my information yet," Thomas noted on what he heard from the NFL regarding his draft status. "I'm sure the coaches have the information but the type of information I have been hearing from Stacy Danley, who talks to those guys, is that I need to bulk up and get some more size to me. There was also a concern about my knee injury. That played a part too. Basically I just needed to come back, bulk up, and get more physical."
Getting more physical may be a requirement for both Thomas and Dansby next fall with senior middle linebacker Mark Brown gone after leading the team in tackles last season. While both are cemented at their outside positions, Coach Tommy Tuberville said Tuesday both will likely get a shot at playing the middle next season.
"I think we're going to look at all of them," Tuberville said. "I think Dontarrious and Karlos will get a chance. Last year Karlos did play some inside and so did Dontarrious. The way we play defensively we move those guys around pretty much depending on the front. We'll just have to wait and see but I think all of them will have a chance to play inside."
If that's the case then Thomas said he's more than happy to take on that role.
"They have mentioned something to me once or twice but if I have to move to the middle that's fine," Thomas said. "As long as I'm on the field I'm happy. If I move to the middle hopefully I can go in and just play. As long as I'm on the field I'm happy. However I can contribute to the team I'm happy. If they need me to move to the middle then so be it, I'll move to the middle."
Injuries are a part of any game and for Thomas, Dansby, and anyone looking at moving on to the NFL this season, the knee injury suffered by Miami running back Willis McGahee had to make you sit up and take notice of your future. Thomas said that there is really no way to guarantee that won't happen to you on the field so you just have to go out and play the game and let the chips fall where they may.
"I saw the injury," Thomas said of McGahee. "It was a terrible injury but you have to look at the whole situation. It's just a tough break. You just have to pray about it and hopefully those types of things don't happen to you. He was smart enough to take the insurance policy. I'll definitely take the insurance policy out but you have to have faith and go into the season and not think about being injured. You just have to go into the season thinking about playing good and accomplishing the goals you set out to accomplish and hope everything falls into place."
The goals for this Tiger team will be sky high after closing out the 2002 season in style with a win over Top 10 Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. Holding All-American and Doak Walker Winner Larry Johnson to just 72 yards in his final college game, the defense set the tone for the 2003 season. With Thomas and Dansby returning along with starters Reggie Torbor, Demarco McNeil, Spencer Johnson and Bret Eddins up front, the front seven returns almost intact. Throw in cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Junior Rosegreen and the table is set for a strong year on defense.