Published August 06, 2006 01:55 am

Dontarrius Thomas was immediately deemed a starter as a rookie, only the fourth linebacker in team history to start the season-opener, but two games later, he was replaced.

[size=18px]Thomas: ‘Time for me to shine’[/size]

Third-year linebacker has trouble holding on to starting position

By Chad Courrier
The Free Press


MANKATO —
Dontarrius Thomas was immediately deemed a starter as a rookie, only the fourth linebacker in team history to start the season-opener, but two games later, he was replaced.


That’s kind of been his story in two NFL seasons as every time he seems ready to make a breakthrough, he falls back.

“I feel like I have the ability to start,” Thomas said. “I have (gotten the) opportunity, but for whatever reason, I haven’t been able to hold on to it.”

Thomas ended up starting five games in his rookie season, making 76 tackles, including 16 in a game against Chicago, the first time he wasn’t in the starting lineup. He moved around some, from the middle to the weakside, but he said that hasn’t stunted his progress.

“It’s made me more aware,” Thomas said. “It’s made me broaden my game. Hopefully that makes me a better player, and I think it has.”

Last season, he started the season-opener against Tampa Bay, then was back on the bench the next week. He started again in Week 3, then didn’t start again the rest of the season, finishing with just 45 tackles.

This season, he’s the backup to Napoleon Harris at middle linebacker. He’s excited about the new Tampa Bay-style scheme that Tomlin has brought to Minnesota; it’s nearly the same style that Thomas had success with at Auburn, taking advantage of his speed.

“I feel like this is my style,” he said. “Hopefully, I can do the same things I did in college.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin said he’s had his eye on the middle linebackers, eager to see who emerges at the defense’s leader, a player that commands the respect of the other 10 players in the huddle, yet also has a calming effect when things aren’t going right.

“(Thomas) is particularly doing some good things in the passing game,” Tomlin said. “He’s progressing well, and I can’t wait to watch those guys play throughout the preseason.”

Thomas said that though he’s familiar with the system, and he feels like he’s made solid progress, there are several things he needs to work on, like reading the quarterbacks and making the proper drops. It’s the attention to detail that Tomlin preaches, not only to Thomas but all of his players.

The constant about Thomas has been his play on special teams, finishing third on the team in special-teams tackles in both of his seasons. But he wants to be known more for his work at linebacker.

“This is my third year,” Thomas said. “It’s time for me to shine.”

Thomas: ‘Time for me to shine’