Sept. 21, 2012
By Brian Rice UTSports.com
Dallas Thomas has seen it all at Tennessee.
The fifth-year senior has suited up for three head coaches. He has had four offensive line coaches. He has redshirted for a season and started every game of two others. He has been a blocker on special teams, a starter at tackle and currently a starter at guard.
Now in his final season as a Volunteer, Thomas is a game captain, a preseason All-SEC selection and the elder statesman of the offensive line. He's moved down the line to his new position at guard, and is doing so under a new position coach. Thomas could see those changes as a challenge. Instead, he approaches them as an opportunity.
"It goes way back, from Coach Adkins, Coach Gregg, Coach Heistand, now Coach Pittman," Thomas said, rattling off the list of position coaches he has studied under. "I've learned so much from each of them. I'm able to carry all of that to this year so I feel like I know everything when I get out into the field, what to do, what blitzes they're running, what coverage they're in, I've just learned so much."
Those beyond UT have taken notice as well. In addition to the preseason All-SEC honor, Thomas was also named to the Outland Trophy Watch List and the Senior Bowl Watch List.
And as the lone senior starter on the offensive, Thomas has had an effect on his fellow linemen.
"Dallas is a great leader," junior Zach Fulton said. "He's one of our most consistent offensive linemen. I'm glad to be playing opposite him, playing the same position and learning things from him."
Thomas started every game over the past two seasons at left tackle, a string of 25 consecutive starts at the position. With the progression of sophomore Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, Thomas was open to a move to guard.
"I've always looked at it and thought it would be fun because they always get the little knockdown blocks with the center," Thomas said about the move during spring practice. "Just coming to clean somebody up when nobody is looking at them.
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said the move from tackle to guard not only benefited the team, but will also benefit Thomas most in the long run.
"I talked to Dallas for a long time about learning guard," Dooley said. "I told him there are two things that are always at work. Number one is what's best for the team? One of our number one values is being selfless for the organization. It's also a little selfish boost for him, in a good way, because I know he has dreams of playing after college. It's a good way for teams to evaluate him as a guard. There have been a number of college tackles who play guard in the NFL. I think it's a great scenario for the team and it's a good scenario for Dallas."
Fulton, Tennessee's starter at right guard said Thomas' move was just another indication of his team-first demeanor.
"He's been through so much," Fulton said of Thomas. "You've got to give him a hand. He's switched positions and just dominates wherever he goes."
And domination is one of the goals Thomas set for the offensive line in 2012. After Tennessee's offensive produced a 100-yard rusher just three times in 2011, with the team eclipsing 150 yards on the ground only once, Thomas said it was time for his until to establish a new mindset.
"That was one of our goals, to establish a new offensive line mentality," Thomas said. "We want to show everyone that we're not the same line, but we can do it and we're ready.
Junior running back Rajion Neal has seen the change in the guys up front.
"I definitely see them growing," Neal said. "I see the experience and the change in all of those guys. It's been great running behind them."
Thomas says the ability to push forward in close situations is becoming a point of pride on the line and is indicative of the domination mentality he has set out to create for his position.
"If we get that one yard, we know we did our job, we dominated our man," Thomas said. "If the running back breaks it all the way down the field, we know we did a heck of a job, it's props for us."
Neal says the season that Thomas and the offensive line are having up front is a credit to both his ability at the position and as a leader for the unit.
"He's showed a lot this year, moving to guard after being at tackle the last two years, it shows that he's versatile," Neal said of Thomas' position change. "He doesn't say much, but he leads by example, and that's probably the best way to do it. He's the coolest guy you'll meet off the field, but when he gets out on the field, he's comin' with it."
There is one memory that sticks out for Thomas above all others from his time at Tennessee, one that had him more nervous at the time than any other.
"That very first time I ran through the T," Thomas remembered, grinning from ear to ear at the memory. "I was so nervous, even more than for the game. I had heard stories of people falling down and getting run over, and I was nervous I was going to fall. When it opened up that very first time, it was mind-boggling, I was just gone with it."
Thomas isn't done making that burst through the Pride of the Southland Marching Band and the right hand turn to the Vol sideline. As his time in the orange and white starts winding down, Thomas says that the magic and the feeling of that moment taking the field as a Volunteer remains as special now as it did that first Saturday in 2008.
"It never gets old," he said.