"Coach Weis called me into his office," recalls Thomas. "You know, obviously you don't want to get called into the head man's office because usually it's nothing good."
Weis explained to Thomas that he wanted him to move from running back to outside linebacker. The Irish had no depth at that position, and Thomas could start immediately. He could still play running back, but he would remain Darius Walker's backup.
"At first I was stunned and wasn't really sure if I wanted to make that conversion," says Thomas. "But then I thought that if I could still play offense, too, and be successful at both then, you know, it could only be better for me."
But was it? Thomas started 10 games at outside linebacker for the Irish but finished just 10th in tackles with 35. After getting nine carries in Notre Dame's first two games of 2006, he had just four carries for 15 yards the rest of the way.
In 2006, Travis Thomas the football player resembled the engineering/pre-med double major who is smart enough to major in either discipline but fails to excel in either. Sure, his teammates and coaches appreciated his selflessness. Thomas won the Nick Pietrosante Award, which is given to the Irish player who best exemplifies all those attributes to which lip service is paid: Courage, loyalty, teamwork, etc.
And yes, when the 2007 season began Thomas, who had already graduated but returned for a fifth year, was the starting running back (Walker left school early for the NFL). Playing on a unit that featured just three returning starters, Thomas had seven carries for minus-seven yards against Georgia Tech in Notre Dame's 33-0 season-opening loss. He would start just one more time in his career, picking up 11 yards on four carries in the 38-0 embarrassment vs. Southern Cal.
And that was it. Thomas was used primarily in goal-line situations all season, gaining 74 yards on 27 carries. His longest gain, a 13-yard run, came on a fake punt, just as it had in 2005. He did score a team-high five touchdowns, but none were from farther than three yards out. He added five tackles on special teams.
Mel Kiper, Jr., is not doing backflips.
Travis Thomas, after gaining 248 yards in 2005, totaled 152 yards in his final two seasons. The question becomes, Was it worth it? By sacrificing for the good of the team, by moving from running back to linebacker and then returning to the offense in his final season, did Thomas retard his development? Did he ever wonder if he was cannibalizing his NFL potential?
"Absolutely, yeah," Thomas replies. "Obviously, we have personal goals that we set for ourselves ... and obviously, I would have liked to have rushed for a thousand yards. I would like to have had more carries.
"A lot of the personal goals I didn't achieve," Thomas continues, "but a lot of the team goals I did achieve. And I think that being a team player, being a part of the Notre Dame family, family is first."
Not so bad after all
Ryan Grant was also an erstwhile starter at running back for Notre Dame who applied for the NFL Draft. Grant lost his job as a junior to Julius Jones, and then started intermittently as a senior. Although Grant went undrafted in 2005, by 2007 he was the comeback story of the year in the NFL. After a year on the New York Giants reserve squad and another lost to injury, Grant became a starter with Green Bay, gaining 201 yards for the Packers in an NFC divisional playoff victory.
"I understand the similarities," says Grant, who was two years ahead of Thomas in South Bend. The two remain close friends to this day. "It's definitely harder coming in as a free agent. You have to prove to them why they shouldn't cut you."
Grant is not an anomaly. Although Notre Dame finished 67th in scoring defense in 2006, the season in which Thomas played linebacker, four members of that unit made NFL squads. Defensive tackle Derek Landri was not selected until the fifth round last April, by Jacksonville, but he recorded a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery in the Jaguars' wildcard playoff win at Pittsburgh.
PFT: Jets RB Mike Goodson was charged with five gun and drug counts Friday morning, after New Jersey State Police found the car he was riding in parked in the middle of Route 80 in Denville, N.J.
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Feb. 20: Former Notre Dame RB Travis Thomas could use a little "Luck of the Irish" come draft day.
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