Job change turns Thomas into a star at Kansas State
IRVING — As a youngster growing up in tiny Hilliard, Fla., Daniel Thomas grew to love college football.
And as Hilliard High’s all-state quarterback, Thomas would just as soon run over you as throw a pass to a waiting receiver, not unlike one of his idols, Michael Bishop. A tough-running quarterback from Willis, Bishop arrived at Kansas State from Blinn College in 1997, and he left Manhattan after finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Longhorn Ricky Williams in 1998.
The thing about Bishop was that he could beat you in more than one way. Complete quarterback that he was — big arm included — Bishop scared the you-know-what out of opposing defenses with his running ability. The result was a great college
career that ended with a 22-3 record at K-State and included a victory over Syracuse in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl.
So it came as no surprise that Thomas, a junior college quarterback in Mississippi, ended up at K-State just more than a decade later playing for Bill Snyder, the same coach who molded Bishop into one of the most dangerous college quarterbacks of his generation.
Here’s the difference: Thomas arrived at Kansas State as a quarterback, but he won’t be leaving that way. Snyder pulled him aside before the 2009 season and asked how he would feel about switching to running back. The youngster had always been the guy who touched the ball on every play. Now he was being moved to a new position.
“I was all for it because I felt I could help the team more as a running back,’’ Thomas said. “I’m not the throwing type of quarterback so I thought it would work out for me.”
And work out it did. Thomas led the Big 12 with 1,265 rushing yards and added 11 touchdowns last season. He averaged 5.1 yards per rush and gained more than 100 yards in five games for the Wildcats, who were 6-6 in Snyder’s return to coaching. In the process, the Cats snapped a two-year slide of losing seasons.
With the advent of spread offenses and the move to the backfield-by-committee approach, there aren’t as many grand ground-gainers in the Big 12 these days. Thomas was one of only four running backs to top 1,000 yards in the conference in 2009, and even if 1,000 yards is an arbitrary benchmark, it represents a reasonable standard for a running back. In the past two seasons combined, though, only eight Big 12 backs have gone for a grand.
As for the Wildcats, Snyder believes offensive balance will be critical if he is to return this program to national prominence, and Thomas figures to be a huge part of that balance. Whether or not he gets more than the 247 handoffs he took in 2009 will be up to Snyder, who said he wasn’t surprised at how well Thomas took to his new gig.
“He’s a good-sized running back who is durable,” the coach said. “He’s a fluid runner with the traits you look for in the backfield.”
And at 6 feet, 2 inches and 228 pounds, he’s a load to bring down. “He can move as good as any small, shifty guy,’’ said Wildcats safety Tysyn Hartman, “but when you talk about having to wrap up a guy that size in practice, it’s tough.”
Thomas’ position switch isn’t the only adjustment he’s made. He also had to adjust from life in a town of fewer than 3,000 just below the Florida-Georgia line to life in the Little Apple, which has a booming population of 50,000 by comparison. Daily trips to his aunt’s soul food restaurant in Hilliard have been replaced by Subway sandwiches in Manhattan.
In any case, Snyder raved about how well Thomas has adjusted on the field and off, and with one good season under his belt, he is ready to take it up another notch in 2010.
“I’m sure defenses will focus on me this season because of the success I had,’’ he said. “I’m ready for that. This will be the year of the running back in the Big 12.”
Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas moved from quarterback to running back before last season and produced 1,265 rushing yards.