(Ediitor's note: This is the fifth in a series spotlighting the area's top football players and how they're preparing for the 2006 season.)

As Southeast senior Blake Thomas discussed his team’s football camp activities via cell phone on Thursday in Darlington, a shrill railroad whistle sounded in the distance.

Thomas, the energetic wingback known as “Sugar Bear” around Southeast, hopes the locomotive alert is an indication of both the noise and the impact the Raiders will make in the fall.

Southeast has not enjoyed a winning season since 1986 — before any of the current Raiders were born. But Thomas and his teammates are coming off the school’s most successful campaign — a 4-6 mark — since 1989.

Becoming the Southeast team that turns the corner remains at the front of Thomas’ mind, he said.

“We talk about that every day,” he said. “It’s in our heads. And I think it’s good for us to remember because it will push us to work harder.”

With head coach Jon Lovingood now at the helm, Thomas has had to learn a new position. He will man one of the spots in Lovingood’s wing-T backfield alongside Cameron Ridley and Jermaine Burse, tentatively.

Last year, Thomas served as a punishing blocking back for the graduated Rashad Person, who led all area running backs with 1,223 yards on the ground. Thomas has embraced his new role and accepted his new responsibilities.

“It’s different,” said the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder. “I have to learn how to hit the holes quicker. I got my speed down to a 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash), running sprints every day to get faster. I want to be a balanced player.”

Thomas said he also will see some spot duty at outside linebacker, although the three-day camp in Darlington concentrated on offensive skills. When Thomas went through drills Thursday, he said he had some other things in mind aside from the season opener against Cass.

“Team unity,” he emphasized. “This is the time when we can come together. This is a good time to get to know each other. We have a high spirit competing against teams in camp. We need to do everything right and even if we do something wrong, we need to pick each other up. I think that was a problem for us last year. When someone would do something wrong, we weren’t there to keep the confidence high and keep that person up.

Thomas has gotten some feelers from colleges. He got an opportunity to sit down and talk with Georgia Southern product and Chicago Bears draftee Adrian Peterson, “who really inspired me,” Thomas said. Western Carolina is one of the early suitors, but the senior suggests he wants to continue to prove his worthiness on and off the field.

“I want to lead the team on the field, in the classroom and outside the classroom,” the senior said.

Next month at West Georgia, Thomas will attend a running backs camp as final preparation for summer practice, which starts the first week of August.

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