FOXBOROUGH — After years of feeling as though he didn’t like playing left guard, the Patriots’ Donald Thomas has been pushed into action at the position and is more than holding his own.
The 27-year-old is in his fifth NFL season, and second with the Patriots. Thomas appeared in 10 games last season, notching his only start, against Miami in December, at left guard when New England was forced to play Logan Mankins at left tackle in a last-minute switch.
This season, Thomas has started at both guard positions: In Week 2 against Arizona he was at right guard in place of Dan Connolly, and in Weeks 3, 7, and 8 he was at left guard with Mankins missing time because of calf and hip injuries.
The move out of his comfort zone largely has been a positive one.
“In college [at Connecticut], I only played right guard and it was kind of funny because after the first game in college our left guard got hurt and they tried moving me to left and I was like, ‘I hate left,’ and they put me back at right,” Thomas said last week. “Then when I got to the league I really didn’t feel comfortable at left at all, I only felt comfortable at right.
“And then last year, when I was in training camp with Detroit, I was flip-flopping and I actually was starting to feel comfortable at both, and to me now it really doesn’t matter. I’m hearing that everyone thinks I’m better at the left than I am at the right.”
It doesn’t matter to Thomas now, but it wasn’t so long ago that it did, though a large part of that may simply have been inexperience.
Growing up in New Haven, Thomas’s athletic focus was on basketball and baseball. His high school, Hill Regional Career High, didn’t offer football — it still doesn’t — and he was content to stick to his other sports.
Though that wasn’t the only reason.
“For one, my mother was overprotective — she didn’t want to see her baby get hurt,” Thomas said, smiling. “And then my high school didn’t have a team and I was just at that point where I was so into baseball and basketball that I didn’t even care. All my friends were all basketball players anyway, that was our common thing.”
When he graduated from high school and moved on to UConn, Thomas continued to play basketball, and it was while playing a pickup game that then-Huskies linebacker Danny Lansanah convinced Thomas to give football a try.
A few years later, Thomas was a sixth-round pick of the Dolphins, having progressed from scout-team defensive lineman to All-Big East offensive guard. (Lansanah was signed by the Packers as an undrafted rookie.)
Thomas started at right guard in the Dolphins’ season opener in 2008, but he suffered a foot injury that day against the Jets and was placed on injured reserve a couple of days later, ending his rookie year.
In 2009, he returned to play all 16 games, with 12 starts.
But in 2010, Thomas was cut out of training camp by Miami and did not sign with another team until late November when he was picked up by the Lions. He was inactive for the final six games of the year.
Then it was another summer, another release, as in 2011 Detroit cut Thomas on the eve of the regular season.
The Patriots played the Lions in the preseason, and must have liked what they saw when the reserve was on the field, because New England signed him less than two weeks later.
After playing a smaller role last year, Thomas has seen his snaps skyrocket, the majority at the position he once felt unsure about trying.
Asked if it is simply his comfort level with the NFL game that has led to his being able to switch between left and right guard, Thomas said, “Yeah. I hadn’t played left before and you have to remember, when I first started playing football ever in college, I was over at right guard. And then I was in a righthanded stance, righthanded footwork, then all of a sudden you want me to go over to the left side and flip-flop everything: flip-flop the play, flip-flop all my technique. It wasn’t easy for me. But now it doesn’t matter if it’s right or left.”
Now married and father to Deegan, who will turn 1 soon, Thomas is part of an offensive line that did not give up a quarterback hit last week against St. Louis and is opening holes for the NFL’s fifth-ranked rushing attack.
So what does his mother think of his playing football now?
“I think she’s glad I played,” Thomas said. “She was still skeptical about it, even when I started playing in college, and then even more skeptical when I was like trying to go to the next level, but she’s cool with it now. It’s just a platform for you to do other things as well, and they’re proud of me. They’re proud of anything I was going to do regardless.”