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Thomas steps up as Villanova quarterback
FOR THE LAST 3 1/2 seasons, all Chris Whitney did was put together one of the most successful careers of any quarterback to play for Villanova. And the Wildcats have had their share of all-timers. In his 44 starts, they won 34 times, including that Football Championship Subdivision national title in 2009 and an equally indelible run to the semifinals last year.
Now, it’s someone else’s turn. Hardly an easy act to follow.
Dustin Thomas redshirted last year as a freshman, a season in which he was slowed by mononucleosis. But he watched and tried to absorb. The Wildcats, who lost a lot, have three senior starters. They’ve been picked to finish seventh in the Colonial Athletic Association by coaches and media relations personnel, yet are ranked 14th in the Sports Network’s preseason Top 25. The defense is considered the team’s strength. Still, it came as no surprise that Thomas was one of the focal points at yesterday’s mediafest on the Main Line.
“Having seen what Chris did, the decisions that he made and the way he led, really helps,” said the 6-foot, 200-pounder, who lettered in four sports at Atlantic County’s St. Augustine Prep, where he set the South Jersey record for career touchdown passes. “He made it look easy. There is a lot of pressure. But there’s going to be pressure wherever you play, at any level. The more you think about the pressure, the less you’re going to play the way you’re capable of. So I try not to. Football’s still football, no matter what the [situation].”
Coach Andy Talley, whose club will open against Temple for the third straight time, Sept. 1 at Lincoln Financial Field, has had young quarterbacks come through for him before.
“One thing about playing Division I teams early,” he said. “They expose all of your flaws. They’re bigger and faster. We’ll find out if he’s ready. I think he is. He’s done very well [so far].
“He’s not just a pocket passer. He has a lot of speed, that’s for sure. He’s much, much faster than Chris, and Chris did pretty well in this offense. [Dustin] just needs a chance to get on the field and play. He’s pretty savvy. But he’s unknown.”
Whitney, of course, was better known for simply running people over. Even when he could barely walk back to the huddle.
’s what really made him a winner,” acknowledged Thomas, a 4-year starter in high school. “He didn’t care if he was hurting. Obviously, we have two different styles. What I’m going to try and do this year is slide as much as possible. As the season progresses, I think I’ll be able to define myself as a quarterback.”
It’s a process. Even Whitney wasn’t a polished product when he took over. The biggest hurdle Thomas faced a year ago was waiting to find out whether his mono was actually cancer. His father, Jerry, a pitcher who spent nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization, beat the disease when Dustin was a youngster.
“For a while, it was kind of scary,” Thomas acknowledged. “They weren’t sure what it was. The tests were coming back negative [for mono] every time. They wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious. It was just a waiting game, going from doctor to doctor. I just wanted to be out on the field. My dad always told me your ability can be taken away at any time, so you have to take advantage of any day you have.
“I was standing on the sideline with the trainer when I got the OK to go back. He said, ‘I just got off the phone with the doctor and you’re good to go.’ I didn’t wait to hear another word. I sprinted to the locker room, put my pads on and was right back out there. It was such a relief to finally know.”
And soon, we’ll be able to say the same about his next challenge.
“I think it was good to sit out,” Thomas said. “I kind of had to take a step back, humble myself and say, ‘OK, this is the speed of this game. I’m not as good as I think I am. I have to get better if I want to play where I want to play.’
“One thing about Chris was, he would not give up. He never complained about anything.”
As lessons go, not a bad place to start.
BY MIKE KERN, Philadelphia Inquirer