ATHENS, Ga. -- Considering he has twice served one-game suspensions for breaking team rules this season, it might seem strange that Carlton Thomas considers this a positive season.
The Georgia Bulldogs running back knows he is only one player, but he believes his teammates' support and encouragement after his mistakes provide one small example of why this is a special team.
"Honestly it's been a really special year," Thomas said. "I know people would probably be alarmed at me saying that, being suspended for two games, but the suspensions, I learned a lot. It really helped me mature as a young man, but it also showed me who was behind me. It really showed me where my teammates stood through that time.
"It was a very tough time and I had a lot of the guys come and talk to me and I feel like that's the kind of thing that pulls the team together. It started to show with the connection that we have and it's really starting to spill out on the field."
Listen to Thomas' teammates explain his place within the team and it becomes clear why he would take a philosophical stance on how he rebounded from those personal mistakes to still play a valuable role.
"If anybody just sits down and talks to him and sees the things he has to say and the things that are on his mind, it amazes me a lot of times," senior fullback Bruce Figgins said. "I confide in him about a lot of things on the field and off the field. That's one person I know I can depend on to talk to. He's been that same person for Isaiah [Crowell] and a lot of younger guys. For people on this team, I think his role is big."
At 5-foot-7 and 163 pounds, Thomas is one of the smallest players on Georgia's roster, but he plays a big role in the locker room. The fourth-year junior is the oldest of the Bulldogs' tailbacks and serves as the emotional leader of the group.
"He's a rah-rah, get-everyone-pumped-up kind of guy, which is awesome. You need that," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "He's doing that in pregame, going around and slapping everyone in the helmet, 'Let's go. We've got this,' and stuff like that. He's definitely embraced the role of being that leader in the running back group and then also spreading it around to the rest of the team."
Offensive guard Chris Burnette agreed, noting that Thomas understands how to motivate teammates by reminding them of their value to one another.
"Before every single game, you know that C.T., he may not be the most outspoken guy in general, but before the game he always has stuff to say that gets the guys' mind right and helps them realize that we're just a band of brothers," Burnette said. "I think that he really stresses that to us to where we realize that we're playing for that guy next to you. C.T. is really good at that."
Thomas is not just an encourager for his teammates, however.
This season he has a bigger place in the Bulldogs' offensive scheme than ever before. After running for a career-high 127 yards last weekend against Auburn, Thomas is Georgia's second-leading rusher with 327 yards and leads the Bulldogs' regular backs with an average of 5.5 yards per carry.
There were points where running the undersized back behind a sometimes porous offensive line was a punchline among Georgia fans in past seasons, but Thomas has shown evidence of what the Bulldogs saw two spring practices ago, when he was the talk of the team.
"There were times where nobody could stop him and you could really see how great of a back that Carlton could be," Burnette said. "I think that now he's starting to mature a little bit and understand how great he can be as long as he tries to focus on important things. He's really been a great cog and an important piece to our offense."
With five-star tailback prospect Crowell joining the team, Thomas didn't know before the season whether he would play any more significant downs than he had in the past. He said it would not have been productive to focus on that question, anyway.
"I really didn't try to focus on what my role was going to be or how much time I was going to get," Thomas said. "I really was focused on making sure when I had my opportunities, I was ready and making sure that pretty much the segment was ready and pretty much that anybody that's on this team was ready for whatever was to come."
Opportunities in big games have not been prevalent, but Thomas proved with several big runs as Georgia built a 35-7 halftime lead against Auburn that he is capable of delivering when they arise.
It was a performance that surprised many observers, but few of his teammates.
"He's not afraid. There's not one ounce of fear in him," Figgins said. "He'll stick his nose in and he's not scared to go through instead of going around. That's one of his biggest things and that's what makes him the person that he is is just he's relentless and he demands a lot of himself. He's not a big vocal guy. He's not loud, but he has all that confidence inside just waiting to come out."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.