Will Thomas always had pictured himself as a linebacker, so he raised his eyebrows when Baylor coaches approached him about playing on the line rather than behind it.
It was something new. Ever since his peewee days throwing a football in the yard with his dad, a former Grundy County quarterback, Thomas had wanted to be in the middle of a defense, calling signals and making crowd-pleasing and bone-jarring tackles. The aspirations continued into middle school at St. Andrew's-Sewanee near his hometown of Monteagle.
Yet when SAS went to eight-man football, Thomas began looking for other possibilities that included the academic setting his parents sought.
"When he came to us as a sophomore, his dream and aspiration was to play linebacker," Red Raiders coach Phil Massey said. "At the time we had some pretty good ones - David Helton, John Tipton, Colton Jumper - and we saw an opportunity for him to get on the field playing a defensive line position. He started playing some defensive tackle, and it's been a good fit for him. He has done an outstanding job."
Although he says the coaches basically asked him if he'd make the move, Thomas never questioned their motives. He willingly sacrificed a life's dream.
"I couldn't say no," he recalled. "I was skeptical, but I'm the type that wants to do whatever to help the team and I have come to like the physicality of [the position]."
Taking coach Bubba Burr's pointers in practice, Thomas progressed during the season, so well that he was named to all-region and all-state teams.
"Coach Burr's a really good coach and we work a lot on fundamentals - reading blocks, squeezing down, that kind of thing," Thomas said. "We work a lot of agilities. It's nothing fancy, but we want to be good at the basics."
He learned as he went.
"The move was unexpected, but I adjusted pretty quickly," he said. "In the preseason I didn't know if I was going to start. I got a chance [in the season opener vs. Soddy-Daisy] and got more comfortable as the season progressed."
The transformation wasn't overnight. For the first time in his life, Thomas had to start with a hand on the turf and he had to get used to seeing plays from a crouch.
"The adjustment was weird at first. I was so used to reading everything from middle linebacker," he said. "The reads are easier on the defensive line and I was quicker than most offensive linemen, so I used my speed most of the time. I didn't really have any D-line moves. I've been working on that."
He has placed as much emphasis on improving as a tackle as he has on Baylor's academic regimen.
A 3.78 student with a 33 on the ACT and a 2000 on the SAT, the 6-foot-2 Thomas has grown from 220 as a sophomore to 235 last year to 245 this year.
A year ago he blossomed against triple-option-running Father Ryan, registering four tackles for loss, and wound up third on Baylor's tackle charts. He hopes to take his game to the next level.
"The better you get at it, the more you like it, I guess," he said.