VALDOSTA -- It was an end to another Valdosta State football practice, and head coach Chris Hatcher was telling his current team what he has told past teams.

There are eight plays in a game which make a difference, Hatcher said. You don't know which eight they will be, and you don't want to be the one loafing when they happen.

There's a pretty good chance that the Blazers' starting middle linebacker won't be loafing when the time comes.

"The thing that makes Cody Thomas the player he is is he has a great motor. From the time the ball is snapped to the time the whistle blows, he goes as hard as he possibly can to the ball," said defensive coordinator Ashley Anders. "Anytime you can get effort like that from anybody you have a chance to have a good player. He's got a good nose for the ball and he's always around the ball.

"And he loves contact. He's one of the more physical guys on the team. You wrap that all into one and you have a good linebacker."

Thomas, a 6-foot-1, 208-pound redshirt sophomore, steps in as the starting middle linebacker for the Blazers this fall. Game one is Saturday night in Albany vs. Albany State (1-0). Kickoff is at 7 p.m. (radio: 107.9 FM).

Thomas made an impression last season as a special-teams player and backup middle linebacker to Jason Cost. Thomas and defensive end Tim Thompson are the team's leading returning tacklers (55 stops each). Thomas had three quarterback sacks and a fumble recovery. He even reminded Blazer fans of another middle linebacker wearing No. 45, Tifton's Ryan Branch. Now the coach at Brooks County High School, Branch set a school record for solo tackles his junior season (1995).

"I was taught to give it all you've got and leave it on the field," said Thomas, a Savannah native who played at Benedictine. "When I get on the field I give everything I've have."

Little has changed for Thomas, going from a redshirt season in 2002 to a starter now.

"I go out everyday the same way," Thomas said. "Last year, it felt good to play on the college level. I had been looking forward to it for a year."

Now it's his turn to start. He's one of four players in the defense's back seven who will go from being a backup in 2003 to a starter in 2004.

"That's what he's been waiting on. He's got an opportunity to shine," said Anders. "In the spring he saw that role coming and he responded to it well."

And while he got a look at outside linebacker in the spring, he's back in the middle.

"Cody made more strides this spring to where we are now than he has the last two years. Sometimes things just click," Anders said. "He runs the front seven. He's got to make the necessary checks and, above that, make plays. The middle linebacker has to go from sideline to sideline. Cody's able to do that."

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