Through the first four games of 2010, Thomas was a second-team cornerback and a member of the first-team nickel package. Then a sophomore, he had only four tackles over that period but broke up three passes, including an interception against Kent State.
But Thomas was left home for the Nittany Lions' Big Ten opener at Iowa and did not play or practice the rest of the year. He did not make the trip to Tampa for the team's Outback Bowl matchup with Florida, either.
He felt helpless as the team struggled to a 7-6 record.
It's hard to deal with knowing that you don't want to watch the games, but you really have to watch them, Thomas said. All of your best friends are playing, so you've got to watch them. They're still your team. You still see them every day.
Though Thomas was not allowed to practice, he was required to attend study halls in Lasch Building. And since he lived with other players, they were able to keep him up to speed with everything that was happening on the field.
We're one big family, especially my class, Thomas said. They came over my (place) every day after practice, sat in there with me, still played (video) games.
Throughout the season, Joe Paterno was vague on when or even if Thomas would be back with the team. He would either duck the questions completely or say, That's up to Derrick, indicating there were certain criteria Thomas had to meet to be welcomed back.
Predictably, that caused fans to wonder if Thomas was pondering leaving the program for a fresh start somewhere else. Others felt Paterno might ask him to leave. Thomas said neither scenario came into play.
No, they never gave me that impression, they always gave me the impression I was coming back, Thomas said. Something had to be done about the situations that were going on. But I never had any doubt that I was coming back.
It was tough, he added. But it helped me out a lot because it was something I had to go through because I had to know what I was missing.
The worst part, he said, was missing practice. So he was hopeful of being able to return to the field with his teammates during offseason workouts. That wish came true when he got back to Penn State for the spring semester in early January.
Joe let me know a little bit after the Florida game that I would be coming back, Thomas said. He told me he would give me a second chance; he wasn't holding anything against me, just to make sure I keep working on doing what I have to do. Basically, that's what I'm doing now.
Not long after spring practice began, Thomas received a disorderly conduct citation for his role in an alleged scuffle in downtown State College. Teammate Curtis Drake and PSU basketball player Taran Buie were also cited, though sources close to the situation contend it was much ado about nothing. According to court documents, Thomas was fined $6.50, or the cost of mailing the citation.
When asked specifically about Thomas during the spring, Paterno was less concerned about that particular incident than he was about the player's overall approach to things.
He's got to go to school, first, Paterno said. His lifestyle is not what we'd hoped it would be. He certainly is getting better.
Thomas admitted that Paterno has called him on the carpet and that it is not exactly the most pleasant experience.
It gets intimidating sometimes, he said with a smile. But at the end of the day, he's still my coach. It might be intimidating to a person who doesn't see him as much. But by me seeing him every day, I kind of get used to it.
Thomas spent most of the spring as a second-team cornerback. But he knows he has the size (6-foot, 178 pounds), speed and talent to, at the very least, be part of what could be a strong rotation at the two positions. D'Anton Lynn, Stephon Morris and Chaz Powell all have considerable starting experience.
I'm fighting, Thomas said. I feel as though our corners are good. All of us are competitive and the best two should play.
That, of course, will come down to the coaches' decision. But they are not the only ones Thomas is hoping to impress this season.
A lot of people were doubting that I was coming back, that I was a good kid, Thomas said. I just want to show everybody what kind of person I am, that I am a good kid and I can do things outside the field that I need to do along with the things I can do on the field.