AUBURN — Daniel Thomas still remembers it like it was yesterday.
The Montgomery native and Robert E. Lee High School standout finished an official visit to Auburn on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 — three days before National Signing Day. That’s the school he wanted to go to. His mind was made up.
The only problem was that the Tigers didn’t have a spot for the three-star recruit ranked No. 1,532 nationally in his class. Head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele were up front with him about that. They were saving that scholarship for uncommitted four-star Duluth, Ga., safety Nigel Warrior.
So, Thomas made sure he had a second option. A recruiting coordinator from Minnesota had reached out to him a few times during the previous summer. Thomas didn’t pay much attention then, but with a week to go before signing day and a decision still to make, he answered the call.
He made the trip north to Minneapolis in late January. They gave him a bubble jacket as soon as he walked off the plane, and he needed it — “it was so cold,” he said. The visit went well. The Big Ten school had a lot to offer, with the Mall of America not far away and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings just down the street from campus. But it wasn’t home.
“It was too far from home for me,” Thomas said. “I can’t be that far from home. I love my family, I love my church family. I like living in the South.”
That’s what he told his pastor, Michael Crook, when he went into his office the Tuesday night before signing day, during Bible study. He told him he wanted to go to Auburn. Crook told him to pray.
The next morning, just after 7 a.m., Warrior committed to Tennessee. Steele called Thomas and asked, “Do you want to be an Auburn Tiger?”
Thomas signed that day. Nearly four years later, the Montgomery native has played in 50 games for the Tigers, totaling 193 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups, five interceptions and three forced fumbles.
On Wednesday, Thomas will play in the final game of his Auburn career in the Outback Bowl against the school he once almost ended up at — Minnesota.
“That’s crazy,” he said. “I was thinking about that the other day. I could have been at Minnesota, but now I’m at Auburn. It’s all a blessing. I’m looking forward to going out with a bang playing against Minnesota. Last one is the best one.”
That perseverance, that ability to identify what he wants and go get it, might be what ultimately defines Thomas’ career.
Signing with Auburn on Feb. 3, 2016, didn’t earn Thomas anything but a spot on the roster. He remembers spending the early part of his freshman season on the scout team, so low in the pecking order for playing time that his name wasn’t even on a secondary depth chart headlined by veterans Josh Holsey, Carlton Davis, Rudy Ford, Tray Matthews, Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts.
But Thomas remembers telling himself, “I’m gonna play this year.” It didn’t matter that he was Auburn’s lowest-rated recruit in that class. He worked his way up to second on the depth chart behind Ford at nickelback. He recorded five tackles (1 ½ for loss) in mop-up duty during a rout of Alabama A&M on Nov. 19.
One week later, when Ford went down with an ankle injury against Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Thomas replaced him with the first-team defense. Auburn lost that game, 30-12, but it served as the freshman defensive back’s coming out party — he totaled six tackles and intercepted Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts twice.
The doubt people had in Thomas’ ability to be an impact player in the SEC as a low-rated three-star recruit fueled him. It helped him form a bond with Jeremiah Dinson, too.
Dinson was also a three-star recruit ranked outside the top 1,000 prospects nationally. He came to Auburn a year earlier, but when Thomas arrived, he was part of the Tigers’ “War Dogs” — injured players working their way back from long-term injuries.
The Miami native made an instant impact as a true freshman in 2015, recording four tackles in the opener against Louisville, but on Nov. 7, he dislocated his left shoulder and tore three ligaments in his right knee (which was also dislocated) after he took a hard hit from Texas A&M’s Ricky Seals-Jones on a blindside block. It cost him the entire 2016 season.
Thomas and Dinson started getting close during the spring of 2017, when the latter was cleared to return to the field. They always felt they were underrated — “if we were four- or five-stars coming out of high school, I’m pretty sure we would have had the hype like everybody else,” Thomas said.
Instead, there were questions about them as a safety duo going into the 2018 season. Less so with Dinson, who returned to full strength in 2017 and shined playing nickelback. But with Thomas, definitely. He began the 2017 campaign as a key reserve behind Dinson at nickel and Matthews, Roberts and Ruffin at safety, totaling 29 tackles through the first eight games, but fell out of the rotation late in the year, totaling only six over the final six.
For at least a moment, there was a thought that one of four-star early enrollee safeties Smoke Monday or Jamien Sherwood might have a chance to jump ahead of Thomas in the pecking order.
And one of them will, but not until next season, when Thomas is gone. The Montgomery native shined as a junior. He finished second on the team behind linebacker Deshaun Davis with 74 tackles, broke up three passes, intercepted two (one of which he returned for a touchdown) and forced two fumbles. Dinson, playing next to Thomas, totaled 64 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, five pass breakups, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
And they were even better as seniors this season. Dinson led the team with 79 tackles to go along with 4 ½ tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a pass breakup and a forced fumble on his way to earning second-team All-SEC honors. Thomas was right behind him with 68 tackles, 4 ½ tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Auburn’s defense ranked sixth nationally holding opponents to 5.9 yards per pass attempt and 13th allowing 18.6 points per game.
“Me and Jeremiah, since I met him, he was a hard worker,” Thomas said. “Since I met him, we always pushed each other, even in the offseason workouts we always competed against each other to win every sprint, win every rep, even in the weight room. I kinda see we’ve been overlooked since I’ve been here. But the first should be last, the last should be first. That’s how I always look at it. The cream always rises to the top.”
It did. And as crazy as it still sounds for both players, they have only one game left together, next Wednesday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
In an alternate universe, it would be as foes — Dinson at Auburn, Thomas at Minnesota. But in the end, Thomas ended up exactly where he wanted to be.