MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Now that he's a fifth-year senior, West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas says everything means more to him, including his final spring practices.
Playing for the Mountaineers holds deep meaning for Thomas, who's been around West Virginia football practically his entire life. His father, J.T. Sr., played the same position at the same school from 1994-95. Thomas signed with West Virginia despite overtures from then-Florida assistant Doc Holliday, who recruited his dad to Morgantown.
J.T. Sr. became a father at age 15, which presented its share of challenges but also meant that his son can remember watching the old man in college. The younger Thomas used to come up from Florida on Mountaineers football weekends and stay in his dad's apartment. He'd play college football video games and make sure he controlled his father's avatar. He has become, in fact, a better player in real life than his pops.
"He stepped in my shoes," J.T. Sr. said, "and he's about to run out of them."
The third-year starter at weakside linebacker was named an first-team All-Big East performer last season, when he collected 76 tackles and two interceptions.
"I had a decent year last year," he says. "I was probably not as consistent as I should have been, but I did everything I needed to do on the field."
Sentiments like that show that Thomas is a perfectionist.
"My son is more of a student of the game than I had ever been," J.T. Sr. said. "I get on him because he's a technician in the sense that he wants to do everything right, and sometimes you just have to be a football player."
Head coach Bill Stewart says Thomas is "really bringing it" in practice and has become one of the team's real leaders. Stewart questioned Thomas's seriousness about the game earlier in his career, but Thomas said he was simply misunderstood.
"I'm just a fun guy," he said. "I like to hang with my friends and live the college life. What [Coach Stewart] doesn't know is I am that much into football. I'm always coming in for extra work and I'm always in the film room. Sometimes he doesn't see that."
What's not up for debate is that Thomas is one of West Virginia's most instinctive defenders, with a gift for understanding the game plan and technique. Combine that with the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder's speed and athleticism, and you have one of the best linebackers in the Big East. Stewart wants the experienced Mountaineers defense -- they return all but two starters -- to put more pressure on opposing offenses this year, and Thomas will play a big role in that.
His father will be watching closely. J.T. Sr. works for a pharmaceutical company in Morgantown and lives across the street from Milan Puskar Stadium. He knows he wasn't as big a part of his son's life as he wanted during his own career -- "J.T. once told me, 'Dad, you missed my first everything,'" he says -- but now he's got a front-row view.
And the younger Thomas hopes to make it a good show in his final year, while he savors every last bit of his last go-around with Mountaineers football.
"Being here, playing the same position as my dad at the same school, everything is good," Thomas said. "Everything is special right now."