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As the 2015 NFL season gets closer, there aren’t many players facing the kind of scrutiny Shamarko Thomas is receiving, and will continue to receive throughout the preseason. That’s because there aren’t many young players being asked to step in and replace a legend, which is exactly what Thomas is facing this season now that he’s expected to take the starting spot long held by Troy Polamalu.

Entering his third season in the league, Thomas established himself as a tireless worker and earned praise and accolades from both Polamalu and Pittsburgh’s other recently retired safety, Ryan Clark. Unfortunately, Shamarko battled injuries throughout 2014, appearing in 11 games and making just seven tackles. In his two seasons, he’s played in 25 games, starting just two so far while getting a lot of work on special teams.

There’s no questioning Shamarko’s athleticism, which the Steelers are certainly hoping makes up for his small stature. The 5-foot-9 Thomas is an athletic freak and studies game film at every spare moment (Clark was on ESPN Radio just this morning, and mentioned being in the film room with Shamarko until nearly 11:00 p.m. one night last week). No one will ever out-work Thomas, whose workouts became the stuff of legend in his time at Syracuse. Videos circulated of the Virginia Beach native pushing cars uphill, after all.

Still, it’s been difficult for Thomas to get on the field and stay on the field in his two seasons. Yes, he’s played in 25 of 32 possible regular season games, but he’s been hampered by ankle, achilles, and hamstring injuries that have limited his development and ability to form some cohesion with the rest of the secondary. However, with Polamalu out of the picture, the pressure is on Shamarko to produce. No one expects him to step right in and perform at the Hall of Fame level that Polamalu provided during his career, but considering he’s been Polamalu’s protege since being drafted, expectations are certainly higher than ever before now that Thomas has seemingly inherited the starting job.

There haven’t been many players easier to root for than Shamarko, whose life story is filled with tragedy and who plays with fire and tenacity in order to provide a better life for his siblings. I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping this is the year Shamarko puts it all together and becomes the player, and Steelers fan favorite, that he was during his career at Syracuse.

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Jeff is a 2003 graduate of Syracuse University, and has been published on various websites including Cracked.com, Spike.com, TheSportster.com, Gunaxin.com, and TopTenz.net, among others. His work was featured in the New York Times bestselling book You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News. He's got a wife, and a toddler he's brainwashing to love Syracuse. Jeff's a pretty great guy, overall, and would never steal your car. Follow him on Twitter: @jekelish