Jack-of-all-trades Thomas ready to be Irish RB

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- You can tell a lot about a man from his bling.

With that in mind, it was easy to spot the shiny accessory radiating from Travis Thomas following a recent Notre Dame practice. As Thomas relaxed in his chair, answering questions, a silver watch dangled loosely from his left wrist, its face and ticking hands turned toward the floor.

Throughout the interview, Thomas never glanced at the watch, never flipped it over to check the time.

His time at Notre Dame has nearly run out, but being around him, it's hard to tell. Deciding to return for a fifth season at the position (running back) he always wanted to play, Thomas is practicing with the Fighting Irish this spring, serving as a captain for the second straight year and savoring every second of it.

And after patiently waiting his turn behind other backs, Thomas hopes this season will finally be his moment to shine.

"Coming back, I feel I have a lot to prove," he said. "I go out there every day that way. The competition's fun and everyone's enjoying themselves."

No one more so than Thomas, competing to be Notre Dame's top running back after spending last season as a starting linebacker. He made 35 tackles for the rickety Irish defense and also filled in at running back, often in short-yardage situations, tallying 78 yards on 13 carries.

The do-everything role brought mixed results, and Thomas missed his old position. During practices, he admitted to sneaking peeks at the running backs groups as he worked with the linebackers.

"Coming back, I feel I have a lot to prove. I go out there every day that way. The competition's fun and everyone's enjoying themselves."
-- Notre Dame's Travis Thomas

But he never revealed his sentiments. Wasn't his style.

"If Travis had been off the field saying how much he missed offense, that would have sent the wrong message to the defense," center John Sullivan said. "Travis is a team player. I never heard any of that from him, but I'm sure he's happy to be back on the offensive side. I'm happy to see him back."

Soon after Notre Dame's blowout loss to USC in the regular-season finale, Thomas decided that if he stayed for a fifth year, it would be as a running back. But he kept quiet, waiting until after the Sugar Bowl to meet with coach Charlie Weis.

"We both agreed that this would be the spot for me," Thomas said. "From the times I got in last year, I felt good, and I knew that if I focused solely on that, I could only improve. I never had a doubt."

Even after meeting with Weis, Thomas spent several weeks considering his options. During that span, Darius Walker, a three-year starter at running back, made the surprising decision to enter the NFL draft. Weis also brought in a new defensive coordinator, Corwin Brown, whose 3-4 scheme didn't suit Thomas as well as the 4-3.

Though the Irish retained several exciting young backs, including James Aldridge, Thomas would have a major edge in experience (34 games, 101 carries, 351 yards) if he returned. He also wasn't sure how NFL scouts would view him.

"I was kind of like a jack-of-all-trades last year," he said. "I didn't know if they would want to pick me up as a running back, a linebacker, a safety. Who knows? I just wanted to go out one more year and really focus on one position."

Thomas has done that this spring, working alongside Aldridge, Armando Allen and Junior Jabbie. Highly touted recruit Robert Hughes arrives this summer.

Admitting that Walker was rarely challenged the last few seasons, Thomas welcomes a tightly contested race.

"He's brought toughness and competitiveness to that other side of the ball," Weis said. "Although he would like to have the ball in his hands all the time, he's made the whole group better by how hard he works."

Thomas has assumed the hybrid role of competitor-mentor for the other backs.

"You know who to ask," Aldridge said. "You know exactly where to go. We look for him for leadership. But when he comes to [compete], it's fair game.

"There's not really a featured back right now, as far as I know. Everything seems to be open."

With the departure of Walker, primarily a finesse runner, Notre Dame will use more of a straight-ahead rushing attack, which plays to the strengths of its backs, particularly Thomas. Though Thomas didn't touch the ball often last season, his most memorable carry -- and most telling -- was a 1-yard touchdown on fourth down against Penn State.

After gaining 43 yards on a fake punt to give the Irish first-and-goal, Thomas zoomed left and plowed Penn State's Justin King, dislodging the cornerback's helmet on his way to the end zone. Thomas, who grew up near Pittsburgh in Washington, Pa., and had dissed his state school the night before at Notre Dame's pep rally, called the game and the hit "personal."

"I just wanted to let him know that I'm from Pittsburgh, too," he said.

Needless to say, Notre Dame's commitment to smashmouth ball sits well with Thomas, whose freakish offseason conditioning has spilled over to others this spring.

"He's such a fine-tuned athlete, everything he does is at full speed," running backs coach Michael Haywood said. "Now all the other guys are picking it up to compete with him. We have a lot more physical, downhill runs than we've had in the past. You have to do what your players can do."

"You need a guy with some experience, a guy with that swagger, a guy that knows what he's doing, that doesn't question himself, that can point things out to the younger guys. That's important, and Travis fills that role."
-- Notre Dame's center John Sullivan

Thomas rushed for 248 yards and five touchdowns as Walker's backup in 2005, but after the season, speculation surfaced regarding a position switch. There was no need for Weis' "best 11 players on the field" speech; Thomas, despite less-than-ideal size (6-foot, 210 pounds), willingly moved to linebacker.

In high school, he had played strong safety and outside linebacker in addition to running back. And aside from his junior year, when Washington High staged weekly blowouts on its way to an undefeated Class AA state championship, Thomas was always on the field.

"We didn't have the numbers like a lot of bigger schools where people play one side of the ball," Thomas said. "So we had to get used to playing everything. That was just something I carried over."

Thomas' versatility remains a weapon on special teams, the area he represented as a captain last year, but his head and heart rest firmly with the offense.

"I'm used to seeing him back there, so it's a good thing," Sullivan said. "You need a guy with some experience, a guy with that swagger, a guy that knows what he's doing, that doesn't question himself, that can point things out to the younger guys.

"That's important, and Travis fills that role."

Will Thomas finally take center stage this fall?

"Travis is a great talent, so we'll see," Sullivan said, smiling. "Time will tell."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.