Adalius Thomas's life used to revolve around basketball. Growing up in Nixburg, Ala., a small town 35 miles from Montgomery, he practiced for hours on a dirt court and dreamed of playing big-time college ball. He was named Alabama's Class 4A player of the year as a senior in 1995 after averaging 20 points a game and leading Central Coosa High to the state title. So it's easy to understand why Alabamans were surprised when Thomas went to Southern Mississippi on a football scholarship.
"Our football team was never better than .500, and I just looked at football as something fun to do until basketball season," says Thomas, who was a Class 4A All-State linebacker in high school. "But I was a 6'4" center, and I wasn't going to grow any more. In basketball my size would always be a problem. I figured that if I got stronger and worked hard, I could become a good college football player."
Not even Southern Miss, the only school to offer Thomas a football scholarship, could have predicted he would be this good. After spending his redshirt freshman season as a scout-team tight end, Thomas was moved to bandit, a rush defensive end, and he has been dominant ever since. Now beefed up to 252 pounds, he has used a combination of strength (405 in the bench press), speed (4.55 in the 40) and athleticism (40-inch vertical leap) to become the best player the Golden Eagles have had since Brett Favre, who left as the school's alltime leading passer in 1990. Thomas had a breakout season in '98, making 71 tackles, among them a school-record 12� sacks, and was Conference USA defensive player of the year. Through nine games this season he has 30� career sacks, 12� more than any other Southern Miss player ever. "There are times when I'm watching film and I say to myself, There's no way a guy can make a play like that," says Golden Eagles defensive coordinator Dave Wommack. "But he's so strong and so athletic that he makes plays most players can't."
Although Thomas has been double-teamed more this season, his stats haven't suffered. He has 61 tackles, including 12 for losses, second most on the team. He also has two fumble recoveries and an amazing four blocked field-goal attempts. "He has such great instincts and a nose for the ball," says Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower. "He's as dominating a defensive player as I've seen in a while."
Despite Thomas's success on the gridiron, he remains prouder of some of his basketball exploits. He loves describing the high school tournament game in which he dunked over current Auburn star Chris Porter, and he cracks a big smile when he relates that some people in Nixburg still refer to him as Baby Shaq. Thomas played 1� seasons for the Golden Eagles basketball team, averaging 2.9 points and 1.9 rebounds as a reserve power forward, but quit when he realized playing both sports was taking a toll on him physically. "My body couldn't take it, and playing basketball was hurting my preparation for football," says Thomas, who earned a B.S. in sports administration last spring and is now taking courses toward a master's degree in the same subject. "It really hurt to give up basketball; it's my first love. But as much as I miss the game, football is now my priority."