The sideline became all too familiar for Thomas for the rest of the 2004 season, a place he hadn't been accustomed to previously. He wouldn't get another chance for six more games, and then only had 19 total carries for the rest of the season.
"It was very frustrating," Thomas said of the experience. "You work real hard and you think it's paying off and then something happens."
When times get tough, one turns to family and friends.
"There's no doubt that my family is my No. 1 motivation," the senior running back said when asked who helped him through the disappointment. "When things get tough, they're always going to be there for you. Also, I talked with some of my teammates.…guys that I was close with on the team, Ryan Grant."
2005 brought new hope, however, and a new opportunity. Former Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham had moved on to Washington, and a new staff offered a new beginning for Thomas.
"I felt there was a new staff and a new opportunity for me to come out with a clean slate and prove that I could be a potential offensive guy that can make things happen." Thomas said. "There was definitely pressure."
And pressure can be costly, as it was for Thomas on September 4, 2004—the infamous BYU game.
"When you think too much, that's when mistakes happen," he said. "The key is to know exactly what you're doing before you even go out there so you can just react and play your game. That's what I started doing.
"It's was just a matter of getting the confidence and then going out there and doing it. It's tough going from starter to not playing. It's just a matter of how bad you want it and how hard are you going to work to get it back. That's what I focused on all off-season during my red-shirt freshman year. My goal was to get back on the field and compete and be a go-to player."
Thomas did reach his goal. While he didn't start at running back to begin the 2005 season, his work ethic was rewarded by being named team captain for his effort and play on special teams.
"It felt good to know that the work that I put in paid off somewhat and that I was recognized," he said of being named captain for the first game against Pittsburgh in 2005. "It was a real incentive to work hard and even harder.
"I take pride in everything I do. I think they put me on special teams because of the effort I put out there. I try to go 100 percent in everything I do and make things happens."
Thomas also earned the trust of the new coaching staff at running back, and more importantly, some carries. It almost seems fitting that Thomas scored his first career touchdown, an 11-yard scamper up the gut against his former head coach, Tyrone Willingham.
"It felt great," the former Super Prep All-American said of his first touchdown. "I was excited. It came against our former head coach, and it was our last score of the game. I felt so much emotion. Things went rolling down hill from there."
That wouldn't be the last time Thomas scored or would be counted on. Just two games later, the Irish called on Thomas again, this time to the tune of 18 carries, and he delivered in the biggest game of his career.
"I knew at the beginning of the week I was going to be a go-to guy in that game," Thomas said of his extended playing time against Irish rival USC. "Unfortunately something happened with a teammate of ours and I was called to step up in that game. I was just waiting on that opportunity."
And the Irish called on Thomas at a very critical time. The Trojans had just unleashed their Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush for 36 yards and the first score of the game, and Notre Dame had to answer. Thomas had the answer, a 16-yard burst through the middle to tie the game, 7-7.
"You come to Notre Dame to play against the best teams and the best players," Thomas said of his score. "You come to play at Notre Dame to make plays in games like that. It was a great feeling."
Thomas still has one goal he'd like to accomplish. He'd like to get his starting position back but realizes that he and Darius Walker will likely be sharing carries throughout the remainder of their careers.
"I've always been a winner," he said. "I still want to be a winner. My goal is to start. Why else would you play? I've never let anyone out work me as far as working hard. I'll continue to try to do that and better myself. If I don't have the motivation, there isn't anyone else that's going to do it for me."
"I think it's hard initially for anyone coming in," Thomas said of sharing carries with Walker. "In high school you're the No. 1 guy. You're used to making plays. Eventually you realize that you're both great players and you feed off of one another. I think that's what we're doing right now."
Sound Bites—More from Thomas
What do you like most about Notre Dame?
"I like the people I've met here. It's not a party school. It's not a large school. I think the relationships I've gained here I'll carry with me for the rest of my life."
What would you like to change about Notre Dame?
"I'd say the weather first. I'd say a few more females would be No. 2"
What else do you excel at besides football?
"I love music. I used to make beats. I used to D.J. back home and I did it a couple of times back here. I'm also known as the barber on the team. Every now and again when guys need a little edge off I'll snip it off for them. I'm the barber."
Does Weis joke with the players as much as he does with the media?
Absolutely. He's real sarcastic, in a good way. He definitely pulls our legs."
What do you do when you're not studying or playing football?
"I like to kick back, eat and a watch a movie. Sleep if I'm not doing that. I just like to kick my feet up and relax."
Is there anyone on the team that he admires….admires how hard they work to be great?
"Brady (Quinn) works pretty hard and he's always doing extra things. I think him being a leader on the team is something that all the guys on the team can look up to."
Which player has hit him the hardest in his career here at Notre Dame?
"That I can remember. I got hit by Glenn Earl one time. That was the hardest hit I took since I've been here. He hits like a rock."
How does he want Irish fans to remember him when his Notre Dame career is over?
"I hope they remember me as a fighter. When times were down I kept fighting. You couldn't count me out. I kept fighting my way back to the top. That's definitely the mark I want to leave."