Thomas Seeking Comfort Level

Last year, Dontarrious Thomas' rookie year got off to a confusing and shuffled start. He went from starter to substitute, from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker and back again. This year, Thomas is hoping his familiarity with the defense helps bring forth his natural ability.

Dontarrious Thomas is the latest in a string of second-round linebackers that was hoping for instant success with the Vikings, only to be generally disappointed with their rookie seasons.

After an outstanding career at Auburn, Thomas came to the Vikings with the team looking for him to showcase his talents in a starting role at weakside linebacker. Along with 2003 second-round pick E.J. Henderson expecting his first full-time starting role at middle linebacker, the team was counting on a young but athletic group at the defense's second level.

Instead, their youth showed and their athleticism was hindered by the inexperienced pros thinking before reacting naturally.

"Last year was a total learning process for me, as far as getting comfortable with the defense and dealing with players and my teammates," Thomas said. "But this year coming into it, I feel more comfortable. It's coming more naturally to me this year, so I'm looking for better things."

Thomas played in all 16 regular-season games in 2004 and started five of them, three at weakside linebacker and two in the middle. He began with two starts at weakside linebacker – including a Monday Night Football game at Philadelphia – but after the coaching staff assessed his performance as too hesitant they adjusted the starting assignments and Thomas went to the bench.

That lasted all of one game for Thomas, the first rookie linebacker to start a season opener for the Vikings since 1962. In his first non-start of 2004, he was called upon to fill in for an injured Henderson at middle linebacker and posted a team-high 16 tackles. He started the next two tilts in the middle and one more at weakside linebacker a few games later.

His optimum position doesn't matter to him.

"Some guys say I play better at middle, some say I play better at out. I'm here to play football, and wherever they put me I'm trying to excel at. It doesn't matter – as long as I'm on that field, I'm happy. As long as I'm helping the team, I'm happy," he said. "Whatever that is, if that's me going back to the sidelines and coming back on special teams or nickel or dime, then I'll be fine."

Through all of the switching of positions from weakside to middle and back again, Thomas also didn't have the advantage of seeking the advice of veterans who really knew the system employed by defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. It was Thomas' rookie year in the league, and it was everyone else's first year with Cottrell in Minnesota.

"It was tough, but that's what they pay me for – to learn. You couldn't really go to a veteran and ask them certain things because everybody was learning. I was basically coming in, learning on the go, and then I was changing positions," he said. "The coach did a good job of settling me down throughout the season, and as the season progressed I did a better job. This year I'm coming in as a new person, new guy, and I'm looking for better things."

Right now, Thomas and 2002 second-round pick Raonall Smith are expected to battle for the starting job on the weak side. Thomas appeared to get more work with the first team during last week's developmental camp, but he and Smith were both given the opportunity to showcase their talent with the first-team defense. Head coach Mike Tice said Friday that neither of them has the advantage over the other for the starting spot at this point.

"Last year I came in with the intention to start, but things didn't go that way. I made some mistakes. This year, I just have to keep progressing and become a better player," Thomas said.

"This year, going through minicamp, things came much more naturally for me. Things are slowing down for me. … This year I'm much more comfortable with the defense, and that's when you get confident. Once you get that confidence, that's when you settle down and become a good player."

He also has a middle linebacker in Sam Cowart who is familiar with Cottrell's system from their days together in Buffalo. And he has another veteran in Napoleon Harris expected to start on the strong side. Not to mention another year of experience for all of the other second-round picks of the Vikings.

The biggest challenge left for the linebackers – as is the case with the whole defense – is to put all the upgraded parts into motion as one machine.

"Hopefully we get out there and everybody will just jell. If the chemistry is there, then the defense is going to be there. If the chemistry isn't there, then we're going to struggle a little bit," Thomas said. "But we've got veteran players and I don't see that happening this year. We're going to take strides to become a great defense this year."

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