In a matter of months, Johnny Thomas has gone from part-time starter to one of the best defenders on Oklahoma State's roster.
Thomas entered the season as essentially a co-starter with Victor Johnson at the safety spot opposite Markelle Martin. Both players saw significant action as they appeared interchangeable in OSU's defense.
When Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M, Thomas knew he was going to have to take his game to another level.
And he has.
The junior from Texas City, Texas, could be a key in the Alamo Bowl as the Cowboys look to slow Arizona's high-powered passing attack featuring quarterback Nick Foles.
â€œHe's playing very well,â€ coach Mike Gundy said of Thomas. â€œHe's made a lot of big plays for us like Kansas State.â€
The Cowboys' 24-14 road win against KSU was the perfect example of the development of Thomas. He was a primary reason why OSU won in Manhattan, Kan., for the first time since 1988.
Thomas finished the game with six tackles, an interception return for a touchdown and one of the best special teams plays of the season when he caught a punt at the goal line, then dropped it at the one-yard line to pin KSU deep in its own territory.
â€œWith the pressure of being a starter, he molded right into that spot,â€ Martin said.
Martin and Thomas have been counted on to be durable and productive this season with true freshmen backing them up at both safety positions. Both players routinely play 75 to 80 plays per game.
â€œIt's been tough but we have to do it because we don't have a lot of depth at safety,â€ Thomas said. â€œOur coaches do a good job playing fast tempo in practice so the fatigue is not a problem.â€
Thomas has excelled with the additional playing time, ranking fourth on the squad in tackles with 58. He's also added two interceptions and two forced fumbles and contributes as a kick returner as well.
â€œJohnny always had a spark in practice like he could be a great player,â€ Martin said. â€œBut sometimes he'd get down on himself or let things bother him. But since (Victor's) injury he's been playing great. He just continues showing up and making plays.â€
For Thomas, the increased production is a result of better focus and a change in mindset.
â€œHe's been very good for us,â€ Gundy said. â€œWe just ran (in practice) and he was leading the group. Two years ago, he would not have done that; he would have been feeling sorry for himself because we were running. He's starting to mature and that's what is really good for us as coaches, to see guys develop and mature.â€
JOHNNY THOMAS GAME-BY-GAME
Opponent: tackles, interceptions, fumbles forced
Washington State: 1, 0, 0
Troy: 5, 0, 0
Tulsa: 2, 0, 0
Texas A&M: 5, 0, 0*
At Louisiana-Lafayette: 3, 0, 0
At Texas Tech: 9, 0, 1
Nebraska: 7, 0, 0
At Kansas State: 6, 1, 1
Baylor: 6, 1, 0
At Texas: 2, 0, 0
At Kansas: 5, 0, 0
Oklahoma: 7, 0, 0
* â€” Victor Johnson was lost for the season against Texas A&M