DeKALB – Dillon Thomas saved the best for quite literally last a season ago, ending the season with a forced fumble that preserved a win against Western Michigan.
A year later heading into the Northern Illinois University football team's season opener Nov. 4 against Buffalo, the 6-foot, 2-inch redshirt junior returns as the only member of a very young secondary with extensive game experience.
"It's interesting, last year a bunch of the safeties and other guys were older, now a year later - not even a full year later - I'm the older guy," Thomas said. "I'm taking on the responsibility of leadership and things I didn't see myself having to do, taking charge in that aspect. But that comes with going through the program. They'll become that when they get older, but right now it's my turn to lead, and I'm taking that as well as I can."
Thomas played in all 12 games last year and finished with 38 tackles, starting the final three games. He also played all 14 games his freshman year, mostly on special teams. Now he leads a secondary with no seniors - the safety group doesn't even have a junior - and one other redshirt junior.
At practice Friday, Thomas was dancing during positional drills after a big play. NIU coach Thomas Hammock said Thomas has grown into the leadership role well.
"Dillon is a guy that's been here and played in games," Hammock said. "He made a big play to help us beat Western Michigan on the last play of the year. He has that experience and he's continued to grow, continued to mature, and continued to grow athletically as a football player. He's taken some leadership accountability on the back end of the defense. ... When a guy works hard and holds himself to higher standards, it rubs off on the other guys."
Thomas said he's been impressed with the deep group of cornerbacks and said the group has also been practicing some at safety to improve versatility on the team.
Thomas started last year at safety before shifting to cornerback.
"We have two new freshmen, Eric Rogers and Myles McGee, that are around my height and have length. We're a bunch of ballhawks," Thomas said. "Mark Aitken, Jordan Gandy, I've come up impressed by what they are doing. ... Our goal isn't to be one of the best in the MAC, but the best back end in the MAC. The way we're looking we're on a good pace for Nov. 4 and the season coming up."
Defensive coordinator and safeties coach Derrick Jackson said the safeties group and cornerbacks are very similar in their lack of game experience, but Thomas is the outlier in the group.
"We have one guy with game experience, and he has production with that game experience," Jackson said. "He's done a good job in practice and made some really good plays in practice, more than I remember a year ago. ... He's done a great job leading the young men in the room and has been an extra voice that has helped them work through difficulties or challenges. He has a great head for the game."
Thomas said despite the youth, he said a hopefully healthy version of the secondary should be able to have a great season.
"Our new cornerback coach (Dan) Jackson breaks the game down and makes it easy for us to see things, and disguise our coverages," Thomas said. "We weren't able to do as much last year. We've got four or five new freshmen coming in and guys are getting healthy. We have a lot of depth and that's a bonus after three or four injuries last year."