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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Open space has always been pretty good to Phillip Thomas.
It was there when he was looking for holes as a running quarterback at Bakersfield High, particularly when he ran for 168 yards and three touchdowns in the Drillers' Central Section championship victory over Fresno-Bullard in 2005.
It has also been there the past three years, during which Thomas has fought for interceptions as a standout defensive back for Fresno State -- he said when he sees the ball headed his way, he attacks the air above as if he were the intended receiver and not the defender.
But last season, just three days before the Bulldogs were to open Thomas' junior season in Candlestick Park against California, open space betrayed him.
Thomas made a cut during a non-contact drill, as he had done countless times before -- only this time, the ground didn't cooperate. His left cleat caught and his leg wrenched, snapping his fibula and tearing ligaments in his ankle, which also was dislocated.
"When I got up, my ankle was pointed out," Thomas said. "I didn't even notice until I tried to get up. It was pretty nasty."
For a guy whom some NFL scouts considered the best pro prospect on Fresno State's roster a year ago, a season-ending injury was devastating. That feeling only got worse as the Bulldogs faltered, finishing 4-9 and suffering their first losing season since 2006.
"I felt that way for a while, man" Thomas said. "Just to be that close to the season and then lose it, it was heartbreaking for me and for everybody."
A couple of weeks later, his alma mater, Bakersfield High, came to Fresno to play at Edison. Thomas dragged himself out to the game, and Drillers coach Paul Golla caught him afterward.
"I didn't have a chance to talk long with him, but it was, 'Everything has a purpose,'" Golla said. "Now he's able to graduate early and this might be one more year of maturity for the NFL. Everything happens for a reason."
Eventually, Thomas, who led BHS to that section title in Golla's first season, started to see it his old coach's way.
"After a while, you've got to look at the positive," he said.
Thomas threw himself into studying the game from the sideline and the video room.
"I could take mental notes all year long," he said. "I could see what mistakes were happening that I couldn't be making myself when I got back."
By spring practice of this year, Thomas had a new coaching staff (Tim DeRuyter replaced Pat Hill) and new outlook.
"I felt as if coming into the season, I had to make my mark and do everything I possibly can," Thomas said. "Not leave anything out there on the field and go hard every play, because I've seen how fast it can get taken from me."
His attitude has been the same since high school, Golla said.
"When he was our quarterback, we'd do these one-on-one drills, and I would blow the whistle early," Golla said. "And he would go 'I would have scored!' And he was mad . He was a fierce competitor, and I think that's what makes Phillip special. Every day, every minute was a battle for him."
Full speed in the spring time was a little awkward at first, but every cut came with a little less hesitation and a little less doubt. By the time Fresno State opened the 2012 season last month at home against Weber State, what had happened the previous year had faded into a bad dream.
"It's behind me now," Thomas said. "I feel like I'm better than I was last year when I was coming into the season. Physically, I'm in better shape. There's nothing holding me back."
He's playing like it, too.
Thomas had three interceptions in Fresno State's rout of Colorado, a diving beauty along the sideline early in the game and then two others he returned for touchdowns. Two weeks later, against San Diego State, Thomas made two more acrobatic picks.
In Saturday night's 28-7 win over Colorado State, he helped set up two scores with a forced fumble and an interception.
"I think (defensive coordinator) Nick Toth and our defensive staff does a great job of teaching and sort of letting our guys play fast," DeRuyter said. "They attack the football. Phillip's done a tremendous job of adapting to our scheme, and he's playing fast. And when you play fast, you can make plays. He's obviously doing that."
Thomas leads the nation with six interceptions, and is tied for first with two returned for touchdowns.
"Making plays comes naturally to me," Thomas said. "Leading the nation? That's a big deal; not many people can say they ever did that, but as long as we're winning, that makes it mean something."
At 4-2, Fresno State is winning, Thomas is making plays in open space again, and last year seems like a long, long way away.
"It's been an amazing journey," Thomas said. "It hurt my heart last year to not be out on the field. All I can do now that I'm back is go all out and leave nothing behind."