Dwayne Thomas opened LSU’s preseason camp in an odd position.
A heavy contributor at nickelback before tearing his ACL five weeks into last season, Thomas found himself practicing in the afternoon with the freshmen and backups rather than in the morning with the projected starters.
Some suggested the junior defensive back was there simply to mentor the younger players. Others speculated his relegation to the afternoon session was a disciplinary measure for his arrest in June.
Thomas offered a different explanation.
“They wanted to see how my leg was holding up, being a guy getting a lot of reps,” he said last week. “It’s fast tempo now. This ain’t spring ball.”
His leg held up well. So well, in fact, that Thomas has already ascended from the afternoon practice sessions to the top of the depth chart days before LSU opens the season against McNeese State on Saturday. After rehabbing his knee for the past 10 months, he’s ready to pick up right where he left off.
“This is the comeback season,” Thomas said. “Everybody wants to show the world, when they’re first coming off injury, what they can do and what they’ve gotten better at.”
As if bouncing back from knee surgery isn’t hard enough, Thomas is doing so while adjusting to a new position. Primarily a safety, Thomas has wiggled his way into the lead for the starting cornerback spot opposite junior Tre’Davious White in the team’s base defense.
Sophomore Ed Paris and freshmen Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson were previously the top competitors at the spot. Thomas said he started working at cornerback the first day of preseason camp, and he’s getting more and more playing time at the position with each passing day.
Cornerback isn’t an entirely new position for Thomas, who, while at O. Perry Walker High School, sometimes covered elite receivers one-on-one on the outside despite playing mostly safety.
He’s used to covering inside receivers from his time playing nickelback, but he acknowledged there’s a different challenge when it comes to lining up at corner.
“You’re on that wide side of the field,” Thomas said. “It could get scary over there by yourself.”
Thomas is still working at his natural position, shifting over to nickelback and occasionally dimeback when the formation calls for it.
His jack-of-all-trades abilities have been exceptionally useful since senior Jalen Mills, a three-year starter at safety, went down Aug. 19 with an ankle injury that required surgery.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has employed a large rotation in the secondary to see who fits best where in Mills’ absence. Thomas said he has been practicing at every spot in the secondary, helping the younger guys learn the system along the way.
“He can cover. He knows the game and the scheme of the defense,” junior safety Rickey Jefferson said. “He’s just a veteran, a guy who has been playing for three years.”
Thomas is trying to secure his spot in the secondary without the luxury of having played in the spring. Trainers limited him in spring training as he continued to rehab his knee, and he did not participate in the spring game after practicing with a green no-contact jersey.
Though he couldn’t go full speed in the spring, Thomas said that’s when he regained confidence in his knee. He discovered he could cut, jump and plant on his leg, which allowed him to overcome the mental hurdle that often accompanies serious injuries.
But before he could fully return to the field, another hurdle appeared. Thomas and two other football players were arrested in June for allegedly walking into an on-campus apartment to reclaim items they told police were stolen from junior quarterback Anthony Jennings.
Police also booked Thomas on simple burglary after one of the victims claimed he saw the junior steal three pairs of shoes. Coach Les Miles suspended the three players indefinitely after the incident, but he eventually reinstated them shortly after the case against them was dropped in late July.
Before fall camp began, Miles said those arrested would face in-house discipline but “wouldn’t guarantee” they would miss any playing time.
Yet Thomas still had to earn his teammates’ forgiveness.
“I knew I had to show them a lot. I knew I had to bust my tail on and off the field,” Thomas said. “I came out here every day and competed and worked hard and showed them that no matter what happened, I can step up and play a big role on this team and help these guys.”
Thomas’ role is growing bigger and bigger, and his knee doesn’t appear to be slowing him down at all. The junior, however, is still battling injury.
Thomas revealed his most recent malady to reporters during interviews last week: blisters on his right foot, which was soaking in a tub of foamy yellow liquid as he fielded questions.
Thomas said the blisters are a result of “breaking on a lot of balls” on turf, something he hopes to be doing plenty of when the Tigers kick off their season against McNeese State on Saturday. Whether he’s roaming the secondary or lined up on an island at cornerback, Thomas has come a long way from those afternoon practices in early August.
“Dwayne is finally coming back, ready to go. He’s 100 percent,” Jefferson said. “Once we go out there and those lights come on Saturday, you’re going to see. ‘Fear 13,’ that’s what he always says. I’m ready to see what he has to bring.”