IRVING, Texas — As recently as two years ago, Daniel Thomas worried he wouldn't make it in the world of big-time college football.
Shortly after committing to Kansas State out of Northwest Mississippi Community College, he learned he would not be eligible to play the 2008 season. It was one of the most disappointing times of his life, and frustration built for the next year as he spent time away from football to focus on academics.
But Thomas felt decades removed from those concerns Tuesday. The senior running back walked around Big 12 football media days as the focal point of K-State's football team, and reflected on the breakthrough junior season that saw him lead the Big 12 with 1,265 rushing yards.
"It was unexpected coming in, from not being known to having a lot of success," Thomas said. "It was a roller coaster. I enjoyed every moment of it. It's what I was waiting for."
And working for.
Thomas has learned how to work toward his dreams, and how to look forward to the next challenge. It's what helped him overcome a string of bad news as he moved from junior college, and what motivated him to play through a shoulder injury last season.
"I was hungry to play," Thomas said. "(After) sitting out that year, I was ready to do anything I could."
He still has that attitude, and says he's healthy and excited to see what he can do with a fully functioning frame. So is offensive lineman Zach Kendall.
"I don't really think he babied it too much in the season," Kendall said. "He's a hard-nosed kid. Injury or no injury he's going to come out and hit you in the mouth. He's healthy now, and it's good to know he's not hurting. He's real smash mouth and will do anything to win."
Thomas will need to be ready for anything this season, because opposing defenses will throw everything they have at him. Thomas was Big 12 offensive newcomer of the year last season and enters this one receiving preseason All-America praise. He is the engine that makes K-State's offense go, and everybody knows it.
"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 after working hard in the offseason. I didn't have that chance last year. I think that's going to help me a lot."
Thomas now has a year of experience at running back to build on. He played quarterback In junior college, he played quarterback, the position former K-State coach Ron Prince recruited him to play for the Wildcats. But coach Bill Snyder saw a nice mixture of speed and power in Thomas, and convinced him to stop giving handoffs and start taking them.
"He's become the face of the offense and the face of the team," junior safety Tysyn Hartman said.
Snyder believes Thomas will continue to thrive in that role.
"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.
"Daniel is a very unselfish guy. He would give back those 1,000 yards for another victory. It's not important to him. What's important to him is how his teammates gain success."
It should come as no surprise, then, that his teammates say they are most successful when Thomas is at his best.
"We're pretty blessed have a guy back there like Daniel," Kendall said. "He can run the football when they (defenses) know we're going to run the football."