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Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas is not a quick study

The prayer list at Elm Grove Baptist Church includes the name of the pastor’s youngest son.

Members gather inside the tidy sanctuary in Georgia to pray that Daniel Thomas stays healthy, that he stays focused.

Lord knows, he needs their help.

On Saturday afternoon, Thomas will line up at running back for Kansas State against UCLA, returning for his senior season as one of the nation’s top rushers.

The Bruins’ defense, with its revamped front seven, must prove it can stop a runner who has the ability to “keep his pads level and run you over, but he’s also elusive,” Coach Rick Neuheisel says.

Playing football now comes naturally to Thomas. It’s the other part that gets tricky.

No matter how cynical some people feel about the term “student-athlete,” the NCAA maintains academic standards that, each fall, effectively end the athletic careers of young men who cannot make the grade. Thomas might have been one of them.

The story of his emergence on the college football scene is a story of persistence, spanning hundreds of miles, no less than three junior colleges and a handful of people — including Thomas — who refused to give up.

“It was a very long trip,” he says. “I could write a movie or a book about it.”

The saga began in Hilliard, a Florida town just across the border from Georgia, with a family known more for producing clergymen than athletes. Thomas, the youngest of five, did not exactly show promise in midget football.

“I often kid him,” said his father, Jerald, the pastor at Elm Grove. “The game was over and he was still sitting on the bench with his mouthpiece in and his helmet on.”

Much changed by the time Thomas reached Hilliard High, where he ranked among the school’s best athletes. Not sure where to play him, coaches settled on quarterback and he responded with more than 2,000 yards in total offense and 22 touchdowns as a senior.

Those numbers attracted recruiters from Kansas State, Florida and Mississippi, among others, but that’s where schoolwork got in the way.

“He took it really lackadaisical,” his father said. “He found out that just because you’re an athlete, you can’t get away with not doing your work.”

Failing to qualify, Thomas might have walked away from football if it weren’t for a call from Northwest Mississippi Community College.

The coach there had heard about a talented runner from northern Florida and invited him to come west. It was Thomas’ first time away from home.

Over the next two years, things went well enough on the field as Thomas played option quarterback once again, earning junior college All-American honors and leading his team to a division championship.

But in the classroom, his attitude had not really changed. He did just enough to receive a degree, not enough to satisfy NCAA requirements.

“Two English classes and a math class I didn’t know about,” he said.

Enter Bill Snyder, who had returned for a second stint coaching at Kansas State. Snyder has a history of recruiting junior college players and — after looking at Thomas’ family, his community, maybe even that prayer group — he wasn’t about to quit on Thomas.

“You always have concerns if it’s anyone who’s had some difficulty,” Snyder said. “But once you get to know Daniel, you realize here’s a young guy that will get it done.”

The coach suggested yet another year of junior college, this time in Kansas. No football, just studying. For Thomas, it might have been the hardest time.

“He thought about giving up,” his father said. “It took much prayer and encouragement.”

At some point during those dark months, a light bulb flickered on.

“The door was closing,” Thomas said. “I had to buckle down.”

Armed with a new sort of determination, he finished his required courses — even took a summer class at Manhattan Christian College, across from Kansas State — and qualified.

Joining the Wildcats in the summer of 2009, Thomas looked at the depth chart and saw his name listed under running back, a position he had never played. But football was the easy part for someone so hungry to get back on the field.

Thomas quickly won a starting role and, in his first two games, gained more than 100 yards against Massachusetts and Louisiana. He later added 185 against Kansas and a four-touchdown performance against Texas A&M.

By season’s end, his 1,265 rushing yards put him in the top 25 nationwide and got him on the all-Big 12 Conference team. This fall, his name appears on the watch lists for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards.

As Neuheisel put it, the 6-foot-2, 228-pound back will be “a great challenge for our defense, especially in Week 1, tackling.”

Thomas’ history as an option quarterback adds another dimension. Last season, he completed two passes against Oklahoma, which means the Bruins must pay heed when he lines up in the wildcat formation.

But just as important as football, Thomas has devoted himself to attending classes, working hard at his studies, and is on track to graduate with a degree in social sciences this spring.

“The thing I like about him so much is that he has great humility,” Snyder said. “He understands the intrinsic values that are necessary to become successful.”

Values he learned the hard way. Values he continues to learn.

“I’m a lot more focused,” he said. “But I’m still working at it. There’s always room for improvement.”

And the folks back at Elm Grove are still praying.

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton


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