AUBURN — There is probably no one more qualified to assess how far Daniel Thomas has come in his college football career than Wesley McGriff.
Auburn’s defensive backs coach recruited Thomas out of Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery. He coached the defensive back during his freshman year in 2016, when he intercepted Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts twice in a breakout Iron Bowl performance.
Then McGriff left. He spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons as the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss. And when he rejoined Gus Malzahn’s Auburn staff in February, he saw a much different Daniel Thomas than the one he knew before.
“I tell him all the time,” McGriff said, “‘You have made yourself a better football player.’”
That Iron Bowl was the last game McGriff coached Thomas in. During the two seasons Crime Dawg was away, the Montgomery product grew from little-used reserve to rotation player to surprise starter.
The next time McGriff coaches Thomas in a game, on Aug. 31 against Oregon in Arlington, Texas, it will be as second-year starter at strong safety and a senior leader in Auburn’s secondary.
And to think, when Thomas woke up on National Signing Day 2016, he didn’t even have an offer from Auburn.
“Honestly, I think about it every week,” Thomas said. “I don’t know how I even got here. But, by the grace of God, I’m here. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s a dream come true.”
Thomas always wanted to play in the SEC. He always wanted to play in the Iron Bowl. That’s not uncommon for a kid growing up in the capital city of a college football-crazed state.
The problem was that Thomas had only one SEC offer, and it was from South Carolina, which plays in the East division — if he had gone there, he wouldn’t have gone up against either Auburn or Alabama at any point during his college career.
Auburn became Thomas’ top target. He took an unofficial visit to campus the weekend before National Signing Day. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele liked the three-star recruit; he just didn’t have a spot available for him — the Tigers had that scholarship reserved for four-star Duluth, Ga., safety Nigel Warrior.
Thomas went to school Wednesday morning ready to sign with either Minnesota or “some mid-major school.”
But two things happened before Thomas put pen to paper. First, he went to church Tuesday night. He spoke to his pastor, Michael Crook, who asked him what he wanted. Thomas told him, “I want to go to Auburn.”
Crook stopped that night’s service and asked the entire congregation to pray for Thomas.
“He told him, ‘You’re going to hear from them, and you’re going to have your offer,’” Daniel Thomas’ mother, Regina Thomas, told the Montgomery Advertiser. “And that’s just the way it happened.”
Warrior announced first thing Wednesday morning that he would sign with Tennessee. Malzahn called Thomas. Steele called his mother before she even left home to go to Lee for her son’s signing ceremony.
“It was amazing,” Regina Thomas said. “I just broke down and started crying.”
In three years at Auburn, Thomas has become a shining example of why recruiting rankings don’t necessarily define a player.
He was ranked No. 100 at his position and No. 1,532 overall in the Class of 2016. He’s the fifth lowest-rated signee of the Malzahn era, ahead of only linebacker Kameron Brown, punter Arryn Siposs, and long snappers Ike Powell and Bill Clark.
And Thomas has had to prove people wrong every step of the way. Those two picks of Hurts were made possible only because of an injury to starting nickel back Rudy Ford — Thomas hardly played through the team’s first 10 games. He opened his sophomore season as a key reserve in the secondary, totaling 29 tackles through the team’s first eight games, but he fell out of the rotation after that, totaling only six over the final six.
One of the only reasons Thomas was expected to be a starter at safety going into his junior season in 2018 was that he was the only player returning at the position after the departures of seniors Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin — Jeremiah Dinson was moving over from nickel, and Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood were true freshmen.
But the Montgomery product more than proved that he deserved that starting role. Thomas finished tied for second behind linebacker Deshaun Davis with 74 tackles, recorded two tackles for loss, broke up three passes, intercepted two (one of which he returned for a touchdown), forced two fumbles and recovered another.
Per Pro Football Focus, Thomas led all SEC safeties giving up a reception only once per 29.7 snaps in coverage and ranked third with a grade of 80.8 against the run.
“Just coming back and watching him, you remember him as a freshman, and that’s what you want to see, is guys do that matriculation and grow not only just physically, but mentally,” McGriff said. “One of the biggest assets he has right now is he can quarterback it. He plays with a lot of confidence. He knows the scheme, and he’s not a listener now; he’s a communicator. He sets the table, and that’s what you want safeties to do in this league.”
Thomas was one of the eight Auburn players who considered entering the NFL draft a year early before ultimately deciding to return to school, which Regina Thomas said was always the way he was leaning. He wants to finish his degree and — maybe just as important — finish what he started on the football field.
Now, he’s one of four returning starters in the secondary, along with Dinson and cornerbacks Noah Igbinoghene and Javaris Davis. That quartet is just one of the many reasons why the Tigers believe this defense could be the best of the Malzahn era.
“We’re going to show them this year,” Thomas said. “I know people are probably going to look down and doubt, but I feel like we’re going to get the job done this year. And that’s not just talking.”
Thomas ended up at the school he wanted to go to, even when it didn’t look like he would. He has played in the SEC and the Iron Bowl, like he always dreamed. He has risen to the rank of not only starter, but senior leader in the secondary.
There is only one entry left on the list of things Thomas would like to accomplish at Auburn.
“Winning a national championship,” he said. “That’s all I want to do, is win. That’s it.”