BOZEMAN — Montana State defensive back Tyrel Thomas describes himself as a goofball. So does MSU assistant DBs coach Kyle Risinger. Bobcats safety Tre Webb called Thomas a comedian.

“It's good to laugh,” Thomas said. “If you can go a day without smiling, there’s something wrong.”

Thomas said that in early August, about a week before he aggravated a knee injury. He learned soon thereafter that he needed surgery. The senior was suddenly faced with a long absence, one he and his coaches feared could be all season. It wasn’t that severe, but Thomas still had to miss five games, two in which he was active but still sidelined.

Through all of it, his spirits remained high.

They got higher in Saturday’s homecoming game against Cal Poly. Thomas not only played for the first time this season, he nabbed an interception on his first series. It showed what the No. 9-ranked Bobcats missed and what they expect to get from Thomas as they enter the toughest part of their Big Sky schedule.

“His maturity from when he got here his first year and each and every year on top of that, it's been really impressive,” Risinger said Monday. “He's played a lot of snaps for us here, a lot of big snaps, so for him to be able to be upbeat and show those guys, ‘Don't be down, this is bigger than yourself,’ and still help out the team, it's been awesome.”

Thomas said he suffered a tear when he was back home in Compton, California, and re-injured it during fall camp. He hadn’t played since 2019 because last season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so he couldn’t wait to play the 2021 opener at Wyoming.

When the fall camp injury happened, he knew he’d be out for more than just that game. The realization caused him to break down into tears.

“I worked so hard to have a start of the season, play against Wyoming, and then first week of fall camp, it was just a setback that I didn't want or expect to happen,” he said Monday. “I really don't want to go back to that, just talking about it, because it hits me, just makes me feel kind of (bad) inside.”

It wasn’t easy, but Thomas was able to stay positive, in part because he knew he’d return this season. That’s also simply who he is, his teammates and coaches said.

“I try to keep a smile on my face,” Thomas said. “If I'm feeling down, I still want to make somebody else laugh. You might cheer me up because you might come back with another comment that will make me laugh.”

Thomas’s humorous nature is hard to hide. He dropped his phone at the beginning of Monday’s press conference, quickly put it back on the table and looked around the room with a smile that looked both embarrassed and mischievous.

Montana State defensive back Tyrel Thomas discusses his return from injury, his interception against Cal Poly and more on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021 at the Bobcat Athletic Complex in Bozeman. 

Webb said Thomas constantly delivers “hilarious” comments during meetings.

“I really feel like he could be a comedian,” Webb said. “But at the same time, when it's time to get serious, he's one of the most serious guys out there.”

Thomas did yoga, Pilates and other things to get his range of motion back in his knee when he was recovering, he said. As badly as he wanted to return to the field, especially when he was active in the two weeks before the Cal Poly game, he remained patient.

“It makes no sense for me to keep on struggling out there,” he said. “It's better for me to be healthy on the field than hurt trying to play.”

Thomas also focused on lending his knowledge to younger teammates such as freshman Simeon Woodard and sophomore Eric Zambrano, the current starters at cornerback.

“He's a spirited individual, for sure. Competitive. I think at the same time, as a skill guy, he really knows his body,” MSU head coach Brent Vigen said Monday. “He was there and helping out the younger guys, Simeon in particular, and getting himself ready to go.”

Thomas attended Bellflower (California) Middle School with MSU safety Jeffrey Manning Jr. Last month, Manning said it was a dream to play in college with Thomas, and he predicted “fireworks” when they finally appeared on the field together.

On Saturday, Manning hit Mustangs receiver Evan Burkhart on an apparent catch and forced the ball to pop up into the air. Thomas grabbed the pass and returned it to the Mustangs’ 20-yard line. The pick led to a touchdown in the 45-7 win.

“That moment was very special because we go back since middle school,” Thomas said, referring to Manning. “Just like he said, fireworks.”

The 5-foot-8, 173-pound Thomas has mainly played cornerback during his MSU career, including Saturday, but he was listed as the starting nickelback before his injury. Defensive coordinator Freddie Banks said Thomas will likely get some playing time at nickel this season.

That’s not because starting nickel Ty Okada has played poorly. In fact, he’s been one of MSU’s best defensive players. Thomas would play nickel for matchup reasons and to give Okada a breather. Banks and Vigen have talked all season about the importance of depth and freshness. Starting corner James Campbell is still out with a lower-body injury, according to Vigen, so Thomas came back at a good time.

The Bobcats (5-1, 3-0 Big Sky) will face their first ranked opponent of the season, No. 19 Weber State (2-3, 1-1), on Friday night in Ogden, Utah. MSU hopes Thomas’ ability, versatility and infectious personality can help his team earn the first of multiple wins over tough opponents.

“I feel great,"  Thomas said. "There’s nothing like being on field and making plays.”

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