A year ago Zephyrhills' Bryan Thomas felt at home on offense, but was nervous on defense. Now he is a leader in the Bulldogs secondary.
ZEPHYRHILLS - He shined as a freshman.
Bryan Thomas rushed for 496 yards and three touchdowns last year for the Bulldogs and his average of 8.9 yards per carry was better than all nine county backs who rushed for more yardage.
On the other side of the ball was another side of Thomas. The confidence was missing. The comfort zone was nowhere to be found. Defensively, Thomas didn't want to be a liability.
"Last year, I wasn't confident I could guard or stick with anybody on the football field," said Thomas, who also started at defensive back for Zephyrhills.
Ask him about last year's Wesley Chapel game, which started the Bulldogs' run to a district championship, and he remembers one play. Late in the game, the Wildcats hit on a deep touchdown pass to pull within striking distance.
"I got beat deep on a play-action pass," Thomas said. "I didn't take my read steps. I was too busy worrying about Tyrone (Tomlin) scoring, I didn't think about the receiver I was covering. I promised myself I'd never let that happen again."
Thomas has emerged as a defensive leader for the Bulldogs as a sophomore, exploding for four interceptions in the first two games. His first came in the season's opening quarter, when he caught a pass thrown by Land O'Lakes star Drew Weatherford after it bounced off Gators receiver Eddy Gibbs. Weatherford went six games before throwing an interception last year, but the Bulldogs got three in their win.
"It's being in the right place at the right time," said Thomas, who also had an interception in the preseason against Palmetto and has tipped two passes that were intercepted by teammates.
Thomas has packed on 25 pounds since the start of last season, and his confidence has grown to match his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame. Though a sophomore, he is the most experienced member of the Bulldogs secondary and is looked upon as a leader.
"It's a lot of weight on my shoulders, but I'm pretty sure I can get the job done now," said Thomas, whose uncle, Darnell, once played for the Bulldogs.
It was his cousin, Demetrius "Boo Boo" McKay, who played for the Bulldogs and graduated in 1998, that put Thomas on the path to football greatness.
"I was just a little kid, like 7 years old, and I was racing him one day," Thomas said. "He looked at me and said, "This is talent going to waste' and he put me in the (Pasco Police Athletic League). I've been playing ever since."
Tonight's district showdown with Wesley Chapel will set one team in motion toward a playoff berth, while the loser likely must win the rest of its district games to advance. Thomas said the game's significance is much like last year's Wildcats game.
"It kind of made Zephyrhills known as a good team," he said. "We were the underdogs, but we're always the underdogs. We have to make a name for ourselves again. Everybody said last year's game was a fluke. I just say that time will tell."
Thomas is hoping to make a different kind of impact in this year's game, and he'll most likely do it as a defensive back, which suits the sophomore just fine.
"Running back always came naturally to me, but this year, I'm loving the feel of defensive back," he said. "I'm so comfortable with it. This game is what's going to kick it off right here for us. We're either going to be made or broken, but i have a lot of confidence in my teammates and my coaching staff."