MANHATTAN — There is nothing mysterious about Daniel Thomas.
The way he talks quietly and truthfully, the way he runs straight and powers through defenders, the way he approaches life so gratefully... it's all simple.
If he plays through an injury, he will tell you. If he thinks he struggled in a game, he will tell you that, too. Ask about the difficult times in his past, and he will open up about them. With Thomas, what you see is what you get.
So it is only natural that Kansas State's offense will share the same characteristics this season. The Wildcats are going to run the ball. They're going to run often. And Thomas is going to do most of the running.
There is nothing mysterious about it.
"It's going to say a lot about the toughness and the execution of our team," K-State center Wade Weibert said. "You don't need a super-complicated playbook or super-complicated scheme to win. It's just a matter of you going out there and executing it. The other team can know what's coming, but can they stop it?"
Last season, the answer was often no.
Thomas quickly became the Wildcats' offensive centerpiece, and the 6-foot-2, 228-pounder erupted onto the national scene by running for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns on 247 carries. Those numbers were good enough to lead the Big 12 Conference in both rushing yards and attempts.
Impressive accomplishments, to be sure. Throw in the fact that he had never played running back before and fought through a shoulder injury so excruciating he needed a mixture of cortisone shots and pain pills to finish the season, and they border on the incredible.
"I was hungry to play," Thomas said. "I was ready to do anything I could."
Indeed, Thomas yearned for the field. Coming out of high school in Hilliard, Fla., a town so small that he considers Manhattan a big city, he figured he would one day play in the SEC as a safety.
But his grades didn't cooperate. So he went the junior college route, and ended up playing quarterback at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Former K-State coach Ron Prince took notice, and recruited him to play the same position with the Wildcats. But his grades once again held him back. Instead of immediately joining K-State, he had to sit out a year in an attempt to get his schoolwork in order.
That meant no football, and no fun college experience.
The process wore on him, and at times he wondered if he would ever suit up for a major-college football team. But he stayed in shape, became eligible and was immediately told to start taking handoffs in practice. Bill Snyder put Thomas in the starting lineup, and Thomas played angry. Every broken tackle felt like a bad memory falling out of his brain.
Snyder was impressed, and quickly designed the rest of his offense around him.
"Last year we would leave guys unblocked, give it to DT and just watch him make plays," quarterback Carson Coffman said. "He's an awesome player and pretty impressive. We're excited about what he's going to do this year. I think he is the best in the Big 12."
Thomas' on-field rise was not due to any specific talent. He never showed break-neck speed, eye-popping elusiveness or fullback-type power. But he was a jack of all three trades. No matter the situation, he was tough to bring down. No matter the situation, he found a way to gain yards.
He even proved capable of passing the ball. By taking snaps out of the wildcat formation, he made defenses work even harder to stop him.
With him moving the chains, K-State threw the ball a Big-12 low 298 times. Four starters from last year's offensive line and promising fullback Braden Wilson return to block for Thomas, and K-State is expected to once again place an emphasis on ball control this season.
"We're pretty blessed to have a guy back there like Daniel, who can run the football when they know we're going to run the football," offensive lineman Zach Kendall said. "We're going to have a smash-mouth attitude. That's what Daniel brings. He's a hard-nosed kid."
Ideally, Thomas will open up the Wildcats' passing game, and give Snyder more of the balanced attack he prefers. But they will always lean on their running back.
It would be foolish not to.
That strategy might not produce quick-strike touchdowns, but with most offensive coordinators across the country using spread attacks, few defenses will have the ideal personnel needed to slow the run-oriented system. At the least, it will wear down defenses — even if they know the Wildcats' gameplan ahead of time.
"They're going to focus on me a little more because of the success I had last year," Thomas said. "But I feel I can have a better season from working hard in the offseason. I didn't have that chance last year. I think that's going to help me a lot."
"Daniel is well prepared," Snyder said. "He hasn't experienced what it means to come back after the season that he's had and enter into what lies ahead, but I think he's as ready as he can be to do exactly that."
One thing is for sure: Thomas isn't holding anything back.
He had high expectations coming out of high school, he had high expectations before leaving junior college and he waded through a year of uncertainty to restore those high expectations heading into his final season.
He is a preseason All-American in some publications, a candidate for some of college football's most prestigious awards and in all likelihood a future NFL draft pick.
In hopes of one day getting there, Thomas is going to spend his senior season doing what he does best. Keep it simple.
He's going to run out of the wildcat formation, he's going to the run after taking handoffs and he's going to do both over and over again.
Every defense out there knows it. The Wildcats don't care.
As Thomas goes, so goes Kansas State.
There's nothing mysterious about that, either.