Timothy D. Easley
September 22, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) No one on Florida State's roster knows more about bouncing back after getting knocked down more than Matthew Thomas.

For the first time in four years, the junior linebacker is living up to the potential many saw when he was recruited in 2013. Thomas leads the 13th-ranked Seminoles in tackles going into Saturday's game at South Florida.

Florida State (2-1) is trying to bounce back after a 43-point loss last Saturday at Louisville. Considering that during the past three-plus seasons Thomas has dealt with shoulder injuries, the death of a parent and being academically ineligible, the blowout win by the Cardinals is just a small roadblock.

Last year at this time Thomas was on the sidelines watching his teammates and wondering if he would ever play football or even remain at Florida State.

''I know I put myself in a lot of bad situations, bad predicaments. I dug myself in a hole, so I just had to get myself out of them'' he said. ''I may take some hits, but I get back up.''

Coach Jimbo Fisher said earlier this week that Thomas finally started maturing and understanding the importance of trying to revive his career.

''He's really turned into a really good player for us, but more importantly becoming a very good leader,'' Fisher added.

Thomas credits running back Dalvin Cook and defensive end DeMarcus Walker for their emotional support last year. Cook and Thomas are both Miami natives while Walker first met Thomas at a high school all-star game in 2013.

Besides dealing with injuries and academics, Thomas was also struggling with the loss of his mother, Mariska Nyon, in January of 2015. As a five-star prospect at Booker T. Washington, Thomas wanted to attend Southern Cal but it was his mom who wanted him to go to Florida State.

Thomas' oldest brother has moved up to Tallahassee and has also provided emotional support.

Thomas also said he owes Fisher a lot for standing by him and keeping his word to his mother that Fisher would support him.

Besides maturity, another thing players and coaches have noticed is that Thomas is having more fun. He is the first to acknowledge that the game wasn't fun due to the repeated shoulder injuries. Thomas had shoulder surgery last spring and this is the one the healthiest stretches he has had at FSU.

When asked how he would assess the first three games, Thomas said he still feels as if he is rusty. He remains a physical tackler that some have compared to former FSU standout Telvin Smith, who is in his third season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Thomas has 20 tackles, including two for loss. He is one of the quickest players on the defense but has been tentative at times by thinking too much on the field. Thomas and the Seminoles defense has struggled against option teams and face another test on Saturday against South Florida's high-scoring offense.

The 3-0 Bulls have rushed for over 200 yards in eight straight games and have scored 45 points or more in their last three.

''I still feel like I'm getting right a little bit with different situations and different atmospheres,'' he said. ''I don't want to mess up. I just want to make my teammates proud, make my couches proud. So I've been trying stay on point.''

Right now, Thomas' teammates are just happy that he is on the field and making plays.

''As time went by he saw the door closing. At the last minute, he grabbed it and opened it,'' Walker said. ''I'm glad he's my teammate and he's bought in.''

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Online: The AP's college football page: http://collegfootball.ap.org

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