NEW HAVEN -- It would be easy to overlook a diminutive tailback as he takes reps among a forest of towering, burly teammates in the weight room.
At 5-foot-9 and almost 200 pounds, Alex Thomas seems to be a mismatch in such a setting with the football team at Yale University, but he did not earn the Bulldogs' strongest player award for impressing people with 20-pound dumbbell curls.
"I don't know how much he weighs, probably 200 pounds?" Yale senior defensive end and captain Tom McCarthy said. "He's a little guy, but he benches about twice his body weight. He's just a little running back, but when you see him benching as much as the linemen -- it really opened up some eyes."
The same could be said for Thomas' performance against old Ivy League nemesis Harvard last season at the Yale Bowl when he rushed for 124 yards, which made him only the 14th Yale back to eclipse the 100-yard mark in the rivalry.
"That was a confidence builder," said Thomas, who set a host of state rushing records at Ansonia High -- including career yards (8,279) and touchdowns (114) -- before joining the Elis in 2008.
A healthy dose of confidence has made Thomas, who recently declared his major in history, a completely different man on the New Haven campus.
"He's looked great," second-year head coach Tom Williams said. "He's put on 15 pounds of muscle, dropped his body fat, but the biggest thing in my opinion with Alex is he's just more comfortable being a Yale student. He's had the chance to have some success in the classroom. He walks around now with a smile on his face.
"When I first got here, you could hardly get the kid to speak and he never cracked a smile. You could just see the tension in his body, but now he's relaxed. He smiles. He jokes. He speaks -- I've heard him speak more in the last couple of days than ever since I've been here. I'm happy to see him find a comfort level and it's showing up on the football field in addition to what's going on in his life."
Thomas, who was recruited by former Yale coach Jack Siedlecki, admits being more comfortable with Williams, and his system has helped, too. Last season, he led Yale in rushing yards (286 yards) and receptions by a running back (14).
"Last year, every play I was real nervous and felt like I had to prove myself," he said. "Now I just go out and have fun."
Thomas should have a good time Saturday at the Yale Bowl when he makes his third career start for the Bulldogs when they take on Georgetown in the season opener.
"I'm really excited about our potential," Thomas said. "I thought we were better than four and six last year."
Thomas was a workhorse during his days at Ansonia, leading the program to state titles in 2006 and 2007, but he will share the load at Yale with 6-1, 215-pound sophomore Mordecai Cargill.
"He will be our first guy that we run out there, but Mordecai is a guy who's going to get a lot of touches as well," Williams said. "We feel like we have a good one-two punch -- actually, we feel like we are four deep at the running back position with (sophomore) Javi Sosa and the freshman Elijah Thomas coming in."
Even though Alex Thomas would prefer carrying the load, which Williams said every good back wants to do, he has accepted sharing the job.
"You can't let yourself get beat up mentally about it, you have to just make the best of the reps you get," said Thomas, who never gave thought to transferring despite the change in coaches after his freshman year.
"I love it here."