Brayden Thomas started out his football life as a sports car. Now he's a Mack truck, and as far as he's concerned, it's all good.
"I started out as a back. Going into my junior year the coaches wanted me to try the defensive line and I pretty much started liking it a lot. It fit me well," the Bismarck Demons senior said. "I like the switch a lot. Running the ball was fun, but defense is better in my opinion."
Thomas, now a sturdy 6-foot-3, 230-pounder, was a tailback when he joined the Bismarck varsity as a 180-pound sophomore, but the switch to defense has agreed with him. He earned first team all-state honors as a defensive lineman last fall.
"Between his sophomore and junior years we talked to him about going to the defensive line and he didn't bat an eye. He took it and ran with it," BHS head coach Mark Gibson said. "... Fortunately for us, his body grew into the position."
Returning all-staters are a rare breed, so Gibson wanted to make the most of Thomas' potential this season.
"We looked at him for leadership right away," Gibson said. "That's something he has to work on, to be a leader. But a lot of guys look up to him."
So Thomas is part of the nucleus the Demons have relied upon through their 5-1 start. And when second-ranked Bismarck meets top-ranked Minot at 7:30 tonight at the Community Bowl, he'll find even more responsibility waiting on his plate.
Offensive guard Preston Mayer suffered a broken ankle bone in last week's 35-13 victory at Jamestown and is done for the season. Thomas asked to be part of the response to Mayer's injury. Tackle Peyton Reagle will move into Mayer's spot with Thomas sliding in at tackle.
"I've never played in the offensive line in my life, but I've been around offensive linemen a lot, so I know about it," Thomas said.
So between the defensive line and offensive line, Thomas is about to become a 40-minute man.
"It will probably be pretty close to that," he said of his on-field time. "... It's going to be a lot harder and I'm going to have to be ready to play."
All of Thomas' teammates must follow suit if the Bismarck is going to handle Minot, the last unbeaten AAA team in the state. The Magicians defeated BHS 22-7 in the 2014 playoff semifinals the last time they visited the Bowl. On that occasion, Bismarck was the unbeaten team.
Thomas said Minot's 6-0 record is no mirage.
"We're pretty similar," he said in assessing the teams. "We both play a really physical game and it always seems to be a pretty good game when we play each other."
Quarterback Ben Bolinske and tight end Brayden Lund, both returning-all state players, combine with tailback Austin Nagel to give the Magicians a versatile offense. Bolinske is second in the West Region in passing yardage, Lund is the No. 1 receiver and Nagel ranks fourth in rushing. In addition to Lund, wideouts Logan Bischof and Brett Lunde rank among the region's most productive receivers.
Bischof, who has missed the last two games with an ailing hamstring, has caught 14 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns.
The Magicians rank second in the region in scoring offense (31.1) and third in scoring defense (15.8). They're first in yardage offense (391.2 yards per game) and second in yardage defense (234.0). Bismarck stands first in scoring offense (40.0) and scoring defense (13.5). The Demons are second in yardage offense (380.2) and third in yardage defense (242.8).
Bismarck tailback Jaxon Ford, a returning all-stater, leads the region in rushing and the Demons are No. 1 at 283.3 yards per game. The Magicians rank second in both rushing (249.3) and passing (141.8). Bismarck is next to last in passing offense (95.8).
Thomas said the Demons haven't seen an opposing offense as balanced as Minot's, but expects the defense to be up to the challenge.
"Our (pass) coverage has gotten a lot better the last couple of games ... so we'll see what happens," he said.
Thomas said Bismarck's final three regular-season contests against Minot (6-0), fifth-ranked Century (4-2) and Mandan (3-3) are the games that make all the work that goes into football worthwhile.
"All the weeks in the summer and the preseason are for the big games," he said. "We're playing a pretty good team this week and hopefully we can start off well and keep it going."
The Demons have responded with convincing victories over Legacy, Williston and Jamestown since dropping their regional opener to Dickinson. Thomas said the Demons should be ready for a big-game showdown.
"The first three games we had some highs and lows. Since losing, I think we've taken a pretty good step forward every game. We're ready to go," he said.
Football is one of three sports in which Thomas competes. He was the first BHS frontcourt player off the bench in basketball last season. In track he placed sixth in the shot put and ninth in the javelin last spring.
His primary focus, though, is on football. He hopes to continue playing the game at the college level.
"I'm talking to a few schools. Some see me as an outside backer, some as a defensive linemen," he said. "... I like both of those positions, but I probably like playing end a little more. I like rushing the edge and getting in with the quarterback."
Gibson said there's no doubt Thomas is a presence on the field.
"When we play teams, I think they know where he's at. ... Teams have double-teamed and triple-teamed him," Gibson said. "He's a very hard-nosed, tough kid."
The Bismarck-Minot clash is the second half of a doubleheader at the Bowl. Jamestown (1-5) visits Century (4-2) at 4:30. Legacy (0-6) visits Mandan (3-3) at 7 p.m. and Williston (2-4) travels to Dickinson (5-1), for a 7 p.m. MDT contest.
Previously unbeaten Dickinson slipped from second to fourth after last week's 45-21 loss to Century.
Jamestown must deal with a revitalized Century offense. Senior Dalton Feeney returned from an arm injury last week and in his first game of the year threw for 299 yards and five touchdowns. ... Adam Geiger moved from quarterback to his natural position of wide receiver and caught five passes for 167 yards and four TDs. ... Century has beaten Jamestown 12 straight times and has allowed only 43 points in the last seven games. ... Legacy, playing its initial varsity season with juniors and sophomores, is meeting Mandan for the first time. ... The Sabers will be playing their second game without quarterback Jason Hoekstra, who is sidelined with a fracture in the thumb of his throwing hand. ... Hoekstra, a sophomore, leads the legion in passing yards and ranks fifth in total offense. ... Dickinson has won its last three encounters with Williston and six of its last eight. ... Bismarck has a 54-32-7 advantage on Minot over the history of the rivalry. The Demons have won eight of their last nine games with the Magicians and 11 of the last 14.