BOISE — Arguably no player benefited more from Boise State’s coaching change than running back Derrick Thomas.
The junior college transfer arrived at Boise State with high hopes heading into last season but was suspended two different times and struggled to produce in the limited opportunities he got.
But with the door again open for playing time behind starter Jay Ajayi, the soon-to-be senior hopes to take advantage of a clean slate as he prepares for his final season of college football.
“Absolutely,” Thomas said Wednesday. “A fresh start. That’s exactly what I look at every day as, a fresh start to showcase my talent.”
The Broncos had high expectations for Thomas last season after a pair of impressive seasons at Butler County (Kan.) Community College, but he was suspended for the season opener at Washington for a violation of team rules and didn’t get his first carry until the fifth game of the season.
Thomas finished the season with 32 carries for 95 yards, an average of 3.0 yards per carry, and had rushing attempts in only five games. His season ended like it started, when he was suspended and left home for the Hawaii Bowl after another violation of team rules.
Forgettable. Disappointing. Underachieving. They all describe Thomas’ 2013 campaign.
“I was,” said Thomas when asked if he became frustrated with how things played out. “But that was last year. I try to lose memory of that. … It was pretty hard, but it’s the past so I just leave it in the past.
“Part of it was really just self-inflicting things that didn’t work out like they should have. … things that I should have overcome but didn’t, just different things on and off the field.”
Thomas got a chance to get on the field when freshman Aaron Baltazar went down with a season-ending knee injury in week five, but he had 12 carries for just 23 yards in games against Southern Miss and Utah State in his first two opportunities.
His best game came against Nevada, when he had six carries for 48 yards and appeared to be turning the corner. But he didn’t play in the next game at BYU and had 14 carries for a total of 24 yards in the next two games against Colorado State and Wyoming.
Thomas didn’t get a carry in the final two regular season games and was seen quickly jogging to the locker room by himself following the regular season finale vs. New Mexico as the rest of his teammates went to greet the Lobos at midfield.
But after appearing to be in the doghouse with the old coaching staff for a variety of reasons, Thomas got a breathe of fresh air and a new chance he badly needed when Chris Petersen and company left for Washington.
Wanting to make the most of his new opportunity, Thomas added about 15 pounds of weight and hit the ground running with the new coaches when spring practice began in March.
Thomas was named the offensive player of the day for consecutive practices prior to spring break and by all accounts has been one of the most impressive players on either side of the ball so far.
“I don’t know what he did last year, I couldn’t answer that,” first-year Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “But I think his whole approach has been good. I don’t know the comparison and all that, but as far as what he’s done in the film room and what he’s done in the weight room and the classroom, just everything, I think as a senior, things start to click.
“His mindset also probably factors into what he’s doing. But now we need to see that continue. He’s made progress, like all these guys, but we need to see it continue. He’s on the right path and he’s doing good things, and he’s excited about it.”
Said offensive coordinator Mike Sanford: “He had a monster of a first session of spring.”
Thomas originally signed with Alabama State after graduating from Northview High in Dothan, Ala., but he ended up making his college debut at Butler County in 2011, where he had 302 carries for 1,622 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons.
He turned down SEC power Ole Miss — whom the Broncos open the 2014 season with this fall — to sign with Boise State. And now, as he prepares to enter his final collegiate season, the 6-foot, 220-pound Thomas hopes to put his struggles from last year behind him.
“Most definitely,” Thomas said. “I feel like I’m getting more comfortable and am able to show everybody what I can do. Having new coaches, it’s new and they aren’t expecting anything. They want me to show them what I can do.
“When you get the opportunity, take advantage of it. … I feel like I can be a playmaker and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”