PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Ask any Pitt fan to name the team’s most indispensable player–which our own Chris Peak did not long ago–and, chances are, defensive tackle Aaron Donald will be named without much hesitation. But linebacker Todd Thomas can’t be far behind.
“Aaron, as always, has stepped up. He’s setting a tone,” Thomas said. “He’s definitely not a talker. He just leads by working hard and doing what he’s got to do.”
Despite missing the first four games of last season due to a recurring left ACL injury, Thomas did what he had to do as well. He finished his redshirt sophomore campaign with 40 solo tackles, which was just two fewer than Donald. His 6.56 tackles-per-game average ranked second on the team behind defensive back Jarred Holley and 15th in the Big East.
As the projected starter at “will” (weak side) linebacker, Thomas is obligated to be the most athletic of that trio, especially on those occasions Donald gets double-teamed, and the line needs help containing the play. Being the most athletic is something that came easily to Thomas as one of Dave Wannstedt’s final big-name WPIAL recruits, but has been anything but since he entered college.
The 6’2″ Beaver Falls product was a multi-sport superstar and got to play at Heinz Field even before putting on a Pitt uniform. The Tigers were edged by Aliquippa in the WPIAL Class AA Final his senior year, but Thomas, the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year, so impressed program officials with his offensive resume he was offered and later committed as a receiver.
However, he missed the entire 2010 season due to his initial ACL surgery. In due time, the healing process was over, and his positional switch was going smoothly–until he partially tore that ACL five games into his first year of eligibility. He gutted it out, recording five solo tackles in an important win over Syracuse that made the Panthers bowl-eligible, then opted for the second surgery after a forgettable BBVA Compass Bowl.
That led Thomas to miss all of spring ball in 2012 and caused his weight to balloon to 240 pounds. Now back to a healthy-looking 215, he says this is the best he’s felt leading up to a new season, and probably the most excited he’s been about an opener.
“We’re looking real good. Chemistry’s getting there. Everybody’s working hard to get ready for that first game,” he said.
It isn’t exactly like rolling out the red carpet for Youngstown State–or Villanova, as originally planned–that’s for sure.
First impressions are often misleading in college football. This town has come to know that at great cost. Since acting as head coach in a regulation game for the first time in 20 years, Chryst and his team grew together after getting embarrassed by YSU, and he’s determined his team will make a better first impression on Pitt’s new neighbors.
“This is a new thing. It’s the ACC now, so we’ve got to throw it all in,” Thomas said during spring drills. “He’s pushing the tempo, it’s definitely getting harder, and I kind of like it.”
Florida State will come to Heinz Field on Labor Day as the defending conference and Orange Bowl champion, and a good bet to repeat history in 2013. Save for its quarterback, FSU’s offense, which ranked in the top 20 nationally in total yards and tenth in scoring in 2012, remains chiefly intact. In order to stay neck-and-neck with the ‘Noles, Pitt’s defense must continue blossoming, which is a prerequisite for success throughout its first ACC season.
Thomas is one of nine returning starters on a unit that ranked 17th nationally in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense in 2012, ahead of every ACC team except Florida State. In contrast, Pitt’s offense is getting younger across the board while integrating an unproven quarterback, and tailback Rushel Shell, once thought to be the crux of Chryst’s attack this year, is altogether gone.
Things don’t get much easier as the season gets longer, even for the defense. Although Pitt has a recent history of causing Virginia Tech problems, Logan Thomas is a very capable signal-caller. The Panthers will have to learn the hard way how well they can handle a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech. North Carolina boasts a solid passing game led by senior Bryn Renner. Notre Dame and Miami will bring preseason Heisman candidates in defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt and running back Duke Johnson, respectively, when they visit Pittsburgh.
There really isn’t a game on this schedule that’s completely out of reach. Having said that, there also isn’t any game, knowing history, guaranteed to go on the left side of Pitt’s ledger, unless Thomas can be one of several impact players on his side of the ball.
“We just have to play together, and not let anything slide. We need to focus on what we have to do, and just play hard,” he said.
A minor coaching adjustment proved to be a welcome one for Thomas. Under secondary coach Matt House, defensive backs Lafayette Pitts and Jason Hendricks shined as underclassmen, and look poised for greatness going forward. Since taking over as defensive coordinator for Dave Huxtable, House has approached his new role with simplicity in mind.
“It’s definitely comfortable, because Coach House was on the defensive side before, now he’s just the head man. Everything’s the same. He just approaches the game differently. He teaches you fundamentals, he takes things slower,” Thomas explained. “I’m just glad we have Coach Chryst…that helps out more with chemistry.”
Count this blogger among those who believe Chryst has Pitt on the right track. Lump Thomas and his teammates into that camp as well. But he, like the fans, is in no mood to wait longer for a turnaround.
“I’m not sure [what’s gone wrong previously], but this year’s going to be different. I can promise you it’s going to be different. We’ve been taking everything seriously,” he said. “I’m not saying the Big East was bad, but you’ve got to work harder in the ACC. It’s time to step up.”
That can’t happen without this defense, to a man, stepping up.
(Contact me at email@example.com, and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)