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Callaway’s Thomas fights his way back

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

The Callaway defense will get a lift on Friday with the return of one of its most important players.

Senior linebacker Austin Thomas, who has missed the past four games with a knee injury, is expected to be on  the field for Friday’s state-semifinal game against Rabun County.

“He practiced today, and he’s suited up and will try to go,” Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard said this on Monday. “That will help us. I don’t foresee him playing 60 to 70 plays, but he’ll be able to go out and get us some snaps, and just him being out there and his leadership and understanding of the defense, that’s going to be huge for us.”

In a key 41-20 road win over Temple on Nov. 14, Thomas led Callaway with 13 tackles, and he injured his knee in practice the following week and hasn’t played since.

Thomas has worked diligently to get himself in position to play again, though, and with Callaway reaching the semifinals, he’ll get his chance.

“It’s my senior year,” Thomas said on Thursday following the final practice session of the week. “Football’s been my life, so I want to play my last games, whether it’s this week or next week, and I hope it’s next week.”

Thomas has watched his teammates get the job done the past two weeks in playoff wins over Lovett and Thomasville, and he’s anxious to get in the mix on Friday with so much on the line.

Hubbard believes having Thomas put in so much effort to return to action serves as an inspiration for his teammates.

“They’ve seen him the last three or four weeks how hard he’s rehabbing to get back, the hours he’s put in,” Hubbard said. “They see that, and they know what it means to him.”

Thomas is a three-year starter for the Cavaliers who was an offensive lineman in 2018 before making the transition to defense last season.

Thomas routinely was among Callaway’s leaders in tackles this season, and he also filled in on the offensive line when needed.

“Throughout AT’s career, he’s always been a competitor,” said Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins. “He’s a three-year starter for us, playing offensive line and inside linebacker. It was a tough situation with an injury at practice, and to see him trot back on the field Monday was very special. It’s a great motivator for our team. He has worked really hard with rehab to get back, and coach (Brooke) Jackson has pushed him really hard. She’s done a great job with him. We’re excited about the opportunity to have him back Friday night.”

Thomas moved into a starting role as a sophomore, and he was an offensive lineman on a team that reached the semifinals of the state playoffs.

Thomas shifted to defense last season and was a standout linebacker, and he helped Callaway get back to the state semifinals.

Thomas has remained at linebacker this season, although he did have to fill in on offense against Temple.

“I’m down for whatever, whether it’s offense, or defense,” Thomas said. “I had to play offense because we had a player quarantined, so I was ready for it.”

Thomas just wants to play and compete, and he’ll be able to do that on Friday.

It will be the ninth playoff game Thomas has participated in over the past three seasons, including his third semifinal game.

“It’s all about having the fans up there yelling, knowing it’s an intense game, and everybody going their hardest,” Thomas said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Thomas is part of a gifted group of linebackers who have helped Callaway’s defense excel.

Fellow senior LaQuize Gilbert is Callawy’s leading tackler, and he had 20 tackles in last week’s third-round win over Thomasville.

Senior linebacker LaDarrious Williams has also had an outstanding season, and he sealed the victory against Thomasville last week with an interception return for a touchdown.

Jarvis Parks has also been a big-play linebacker, and he had a pick six against Temple.

With Thomas out of action, Kier Jackson has filled in capably at linebacker, and running back Charlie Dixon has also seen plenty of time at that position.