Following a summer practice in 2007, TSU’s freshman running back Danté Thomas left an unforgettable first impression with position coach Kevin Mashack.

Thomas, who just transferred from the Naval Academy Prep school, joined the rest of the TSU team for summer camp, but Mashack noticed Thomas looked slow and questioned why the program offered him scholarship to begin with.

It wasn’t until the second week of camp, according to Mashack, until he discovered the main cause for Thomas’ struggles.

His cleats.

“I see him on the table taking off his cleats with skin hanging off his feet,” Mashack recalled. “But he didn’t complain. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t want us to think that he just got here and that he was already hurt.”

Four years later, the fifth-year senior from Dallas still resembles that same 19-year-old football player from ‘07, but this time his cleats fit just fine. The soft-spoken Thomas continues to maintain that willingness to push forward and make the best of his situation.

Playing behind current Houston Texan Javarris Williams and Preston Brown, Thomas has waited five years to be the lead back for the Tigers.

“I did expect to play more, and it was tough at first,” Thomas said. “I just knew everything happened for a reason.”

After rushing for 697 yards and four touchdowns in his first two seasons in Nashville, Tenn., Thomas saw an increased role in 2010. Following a season-ending injury by Brown against North Carolina A&T in October, Thomas stepped in with a career-best performance.

“He’s just waited for his number to get called,” Mashack said. “That’s what I love about him. Doesn’t matter if he’s first or third, when his number is called, he’s ready.”

With 35,217 in attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis, Thomas rushed for 186 yards on 24 carries and scored twice to help TSU top North Carolina A&T 37-7. Despite a 3-8 record last season, TSU averaged 190 rushing yards per game.

Thomas brings the Tigers an explosive threat who has the ability to score every time he touches the ball. At 5-foot-9, 195 pounds and a true “get to the corner and go” back as Mashack describes, Thomas compared himself to former Tulane, and current Chicago Bears running back, Matt Forté.

Behind Thomas, TSU has a strong group of underclassmen who have learned under Thomas’ new role of team leader this offseason.

“He’s matured a whole lot,” Mashack explained. “He’s been a quiet kid since he’s been here, but now he’s taking on that role as coach.”

Thomas attributes his leadership role to the TSU way. He says Williams and Brown took him under their wings and did the same thing Thomas is now doing for his current teammates.

But whether mentor, coach or player for Thomas, who was named to the 2011 All-Ohio Valley Conference preseason team, this season is about one thing, and one thing only.

“I want to win,” Thomas said. “There have been plenty of days I did well and we lost and I went home depressed, not wanting to come up on Sunday to watch film and run.”

With a host of NFL teams - including the Patriots, Colts and Ravens - sending scouts to watch Thomas this summer, the humble starter reiterated his priorities, saying that making the NFL would be nice, but his top concern is winning the OVC and beating SU on Saturday.

In a perfect - quiet and determined - Thomas-esque tone he offered a simple message to Southern and its fans: “We’re going to come out with an attitude and play physical. We’re going to play hard from the first to the last quarter.”