Published September 29, 2010
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Out of the corner of his eye, Kansas State quarterback Carson Coffman saw something that made him gulp.
An unblocked Iowa State safety was flashing into the backfield, taking dead aim at Daniel Thomas just as he was getting the ball.
But suddenly Thomas dipped a shoulder, swiveled a hip and shifted his weight. The safety grabbed mostly air and Thomas spun away for a 20-yard gain in a 27-20 victory in the Wildcats' Big 12 opener.
"I thought I'd seen just about every move he has," Coffman said of his humble running back. "Pretty sweet."
Football always came easy to this easygoing son of a Georgia pastor. It was all that other stuff that led him through three different junior colleges and at least one crisis of confidence before he finally landed safely at Kansas State.
Now he's averaging 157 yards per game for the unbeaten Wildcats (4-0), excelling at a position he never played until last year. NFL scouts are also taking notice of a remarkably fast, fluid and elusive 238-pounder.
"He is a great running back," said Central Florida coach George O'Leary. "He will be playing on Sunday."
For a couple of worrisome years, it looked like Thomas would never reach his potential. He was in peril of joining a mostly unseen army of unfortunate young people who never meet minimum NCAA academic standards and drop back into the crowd, their athletic talents forever untapped.
An option quarterback at Hilliard, Fla., high school, he was offered a scholarship by Ole Miss. But he failed to qualify. So it was on to Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he rushed for 618 yards and six TDs and passed for 450 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Florida and Oklahoma came calling. The Sooners wanted to turn him into a safety. Florida foresaw him as a quarterback.
But still the grades were not up to snuff. He began to wonder if the struggle was worth it.
"I think I was pretty distracted," he said. "I had just never thought studying and going to class was important."
At the Elm Grove Baptist Church across the state line in Florida, Pastor Jerald Thomas asked the congregation to pray for his son, who enrolled at Butler Community College in Kansas. Then, finally, he got his academics in line with a couple of classes at Manhattan (Kan.) Christian and enrolled at Kansas State.
"What a journey," he said. "I could probably write a book about it."
To that point, he had played quarterback, linebacker and safety. But when he reported for his first meeting at Kansas State, he was told to report to the running backs' meeting.
"It was kind of a shock," he said.
It turns out coach Bill Snyder had taken a long look at videotape.
"I just didn't feel like he was going to be able to throw the football as well as you would hope you could at that position," he said. "It was apparent he could run the ball."
Many quarterbacks might be bitter at the switch. Not Thomas.
"You say, 'Daniel, you're a safety, Daniel, you're an offensive tackle,' he would say, 'OK, show me what to do,'" said Snyder. "That's just the way he is."
Thomas hurt his shoulder in the first game in 2009. But with a sore shoulder and no experience at his new position, he proceeded to lead the Big 12 with 1,265 yards rushing.
This year, in his 13th game as a running back, he launched his senior season with 234 yards against UCLA. No one had gained that many yards against the Bruins since Reggie Bush went for 260 in his Heisman Trophy-winning year of 2005.
He had 137 against Missouri State the next week and ripped through Iowa State's defense for 181 the week after that, scoring two touchdowns in all three games.
O'Leary's Central Florida defense keyed on him every play and held him to 76 yards but that opened up the passing lanes for Coffman and Kansas State remained unbeaten going into this bye week.
"We're undefeated and that's the most important thing," Thomas said. "I don't think we've reached our potential yet."
Thomas ranks fourth nationally with an average of 157 yards. His 628 total yards rushing are second only to Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
"Against a back like him you have to be prepared for it because the average back is nowhere near that size," Central Florida defensive end David Williams said of the beefy, 6-foot-2 Thomas. "He's so shifty, too. For his size, his athleticism is almost unforeseen in college football."
Sometimes he still looks like a rookie at his position. There have been several times this year when he failed to use his blocks just right.
"But he makes so many yards on his own after contact," said center Wade Weibert. "He just keeps churning his feet and fighting for every inch he can get."
Given his accomplishments, the inexperience cannot be considered a problem. Neither are grades. The gifted young athlete once considered an academic risk is on track to get his degree.
"I used to be totally focused on football. I wanted to make a name for myself," he said. "But now I understand you can do other things other than play football. I'm staying on top of it now."
Thomas' teammates would not be surprised if he's the first running back taken in the NFL draft next April.
"He's got everything," said fullback Braden Wilson. "He can do everything."