So far, third time's a charm for Pitt linebacker Thomas

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For a linebacker, recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury can be quite the daunting proposition. First there's the surgery, followed by months of grueling rehabilitation assignments just to get back on the field eight months later.

Now how about doing all that twice?

Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas made his season debut in the Panthers' 14-13 loss Friday at Syracuse, coming off his second ACL surgery this offseason.

"I was almost in tears going out there because it had been so long," Thomas said. "Some people, when they tear their ACL twice, they'd give up. They wouldn't fight. I love this game so much, I had to."

Thomas originally arrived as a receiver in 2010 and tore his left ACL while playing on the scout team three weeks into the season. He had surgery, worked his way back, and made the transition to linebacker for the '11 season.

Then, five games in, it happened again. Thomas suffered a partial tear of the same ACL in Pitt's 44-17 victory against South Florida. He delayed surgery to play the rest of the season.

"I was like, 'I'll play through the pain. I don't care,'" Thomas said. "I had to do something. I wanted to play football so bad."

The offseason surgery pushed back the calendar for Thomas' recovery. Had he cut his season short and had surgery in the fall, Thomas probably would have been ready for the beginning of this season. As it was, he participated early in training camp but sat down after a few practices.

He missed most of camp and only returned to practice the week before the Virginia Tech game. Thomas looked poised to make his return against Gardner-Webb but ultimately didn't make it onto the field.

Finally, he made his debut against Syracuse, first on special teams, then on defense.

Originally, Thomas said it was hard to take his time to get back on the field, but one conversation eventually made him slow things down.

"I [wanted to get back soon], but after a while I talked to my mom," Thomas said. "She said you've got three more years left of football. After this one, I've got two left. But I've still got a long time. If you want to reach your goal, you're going to sit your butt down."

He said the toughest part was getting his conditioning back. Thomas said his weight went up to 235 pounds during rehab but was now down to his ideal 225.

Thomas got his first hit early in the second quarter, when he and cornerback K'Waun Williams forced Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib out of bounds.

"It felt good. I wanted to kill him a little bit," Thomas said with a smile. "That was the first time hitting someone like that since I got back. It felt good to hit somebody again."

The Panthers will hope there are plenty more hits to come from Thomas, who brings a blend of size, physicality and athleticism to the Pitt defense. He plays at the strong-side linebacker position, currently occupied by Eric Williams.

Against Syracuse, Thomas played primarily in Pitt's dime defense, with three linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs on the field. That package should see more playing time as the Panthers face more spread offense teams this season, but Thomas also said he hopes to get back into the regular rotation on the base defense as well.

"He's moving around a lot better and just his quickness and his strength and his toughness on the field is going to bring a lot to our defense," defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said. "We're going to continue to use him in situations and get him involved."


Sam Werner: or on Twitter: @SWernerPG.


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