For most players about to begin their redshirt junior season, spring football is a familiar grind.
For Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas, it's a whole new experience.
After missing his first two springs recovering from two separate anterior cruciate ligament surgeries, Thomas is finally in a position to make major strides in the offseason, rather than just get healthy.
"Oh, definitely, I feel comfortable," Thomas said. "It started with my knee first. Once that got [better], my [comfort level] just skyrocketed all the way around."
Thomas had his second torn ACL midway through the 2011 season, but delayed surgery until the end of the season. Because he put off surgery, he didn't make his 2012 debut until the fifth game of the season against Syracuse.
He played with a brace but has shed it for the spring. Tuesday, he estimated his health at 90 percent, and assured that he would be at 100 percent by the fall.
"[Spring practice is] going to help a lot," Thomas said. "Last year, I wasn't really comfortable. I was just worrying about what's going to happen to me. I was playing through pain.
"Now, I feel good. I don't have my big brace on. I'm not worried about who's going to cut me, who's going to hit me from behind. I'm just out there playing, I'm not worried about anything."
Thomas' biggest concern this spring is taking on an enhanced leadership role on the defense. The unit will return 10 of 11 starters, and Thomas figures to be one of its top playmakers.
Even in a truncated season, Thomas had 59 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 1 interception.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst said it's a bit early for leaders to develop, but that there are some signs of it. Thomas said he wants to be one of those vocal leaders on the defense.
"I think there's guys doing the right things and leadership is easy to talk about but it comes in a lot of different forms," Chryst said. "Those special leaders are guys that cover a lot of the different ways you lead. You lead by example, you lead by knowing your teammates well enough that you know when to push those right buttons.
"It comes in a lot of different styles, right?"
Thomas also will be using his first spring practice to adjust to new defensive coordinator Matt House's defense. He said there are some minor changes, but the overall philosophy isn't too different from the one run by Dave Huxtable last season. The Panthers have mixed up their formations a bit more this spring and are using some zone coverage schemes, whereas last year was exclusively man-to-man coverage.
"It's more letting us play football," Thomas said. "It's more just playing football and just learning what to do."
It's still a long way until Pitt's Labor Day opener against Florida State, but Thomas already is excited about the opportunity. That's the goal he's looking forward to as Pitt grinds through its spring practices.
"I'm anxious," he said. "Labor Day. Florida State. Prime time, only game on TV. That's a big game right there, you've got to come out and perform."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter: @SWernerPG.