Duke Thomas

WHITE-OUT

West Virginia Senior Kevin White may be the most dynamic receiver in the country. The transfer from Lackawanna College has raked in 1,075 receiving yards, third-highest total in the nation, and eight touchdowns.

Junior corner Duke Thomas will likely line up across the superstar receiver, as senior Quandre Diggs continues to line up over the slot receiver. Opposing quarterbacks will pick on Thomas regardless of who he faces, and West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett could have a field day if Texas cannot find a way to neutralize the Mountaineers’ best offensive weapon.

Thomas and company will have to make sure that they are just as strong after the catch as before. White has the elusiveness to tear through the Longhorn secondary all game long if the Texas defensive backs cannot bring him down on
first contact. 

START STRONG

The Texas offense tends to sputter for a series or two before settling in for sustained drives, but that approach will not be enough Saturday. The Mountaineer offense is explosive enough to score from anywhere on the field, and it has too much talent to falter as the game goes on.

The Longhorns will need to start scoring early and often if they want to hang with a top-25 team like West Virginia. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, West Virginia has excelled on opening drives. The Mountaineers have only given up two opening-drive scores this season, and opponents are averaging a scant 4.4 points in the first quarter.

The odds are against the Longhorns, but the offense has enough talent to light up the scoreboard when firing on all cylinders. Texas will have to do just that if it’s going to knock off the Mountaineers. 

KEEP SWOOPES CLEAN

Sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes has the arm of an All-American, but he has struggled mightily to make accurate throws against disruptive pass rushes. Swoopes has a tendency to flinch in the face of oncoming blitzes, leading to wobbly passes that force his receivers to break stride and do all they can to prevent interceptions.

In recent weeks, Swoopes’ best asset has been his deep ball, but it takes time for deep routes to develop. He has yet to show the ability to consistently check out of his first option and accurately hit receivers on short routes over the middle when the deep ball is not there.

The Mountaineers will light up the scoreboard regardless of the opponent. Swoopes is the key to turning this game into a shoot-out, rather than a blowout, and the offensive line will have to give the youngster enough time to do so.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Tyrone Swoopes

Before the Kansas State game, sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes appeared as if he had turned the corner. Swoopes had put together two phenomenal performances against Oklahoma and Iowa State, putting up a combined 655 passing yards, three passing touchdowns, 145 rushing yards and two rushing scores.

But Swoopes took a step back against Kansas State. The quarterback from Whitewright, Texas, struggled mightily against the Wildcats, only throwing for 106 yards in the Longhorns’ first shutout loss since 2004.

Now, Texas, 3-5, needs Swoopes to step up and play as he did against the Sooners and Cyclones, because the Longhorns need to win three games to become bowl eligible.

Johnathan Gray

It hasn’t been a good year for the Texas running backs. With a young offensive line, there haven’t been many holes to run through. At times, the line has also struggled to keep pressure out of the backfield.

While the line is responsible for many of the Longhorns’ problems, junior running back Johnathan Gray has had his own struggles this season. Gray, who is coming back from an Achilles injury, hasn’t looked as good as he did in his first couple seasons. He appears a step slower and doesn’t have the agility he once had.

This season, Gray has only amassed 369 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while his teammate, senior running back Malcolm Brown, has found the end zone four times and has rushed for 417 yards.

The Longhorns need help offensively, and if Gray can spark the running game, that would be a big help. 

Duke Thomas

For the most part, the Texas defense has been the cornerstone of the team. But junior cornerback Duke Thomas has been hot-and-cold this season.

Thomas got burned on a double-move against UCLA, which allowed the Bruins to score the game-winning touchdown.

Thomas followed that disappointing performance with two interceptions against Kansas and then snagged another interception against Iowa State to raise his season total to three.

But, against Kansas State, Thomas once again got burned on a double-move, which set up a Wildcat touchdown.

The Longhorn defense has been solid this season, but, in order to be better, it needs Thomas to step up and be more reliable. 

It’s a play many have forgotten because of a controversial no-call late in Texas’ 31-30 victory over Iowa State last year. But the Longhorn defensive backs certainly remember it.

In the win, the Longhorn secondary allowed Iowa State to throw for a then season-high 262 yards through the air, including a 97-yard touchdown strike that set the record as longest pass play in Cyclone history.

“The [defensive backs], we actually watched the game from last year, a couple of plays,” senior safety Mykkele Thompson said. “And you can just tell it’s a totally different team, and our mindset is different.”

It’s apparent Texas’ defensive backs have grown a lot since then. The defense has allowed less than 134 passing yards per game — third best in the nation. 

But going back to last year’s game, Iowa State’s 97-yard score was the result of poor coverage and bad angles from Texas’ defensive backfield. Junior cornerback Duke Thomas, who was covering junior receiver Quenton Bundrage on the play, allowed him to get inside on the slant route. Thompson was the last line of defense but took a poor angle, which allowed Bundrage to take off for the end zone untouched.

Although Thomas was responsible for allowing the catch in the first place, Thompson’s bad judgement was what turned a routine first down grab into a score.

“I actually went back and watched that play a couple of times,” Thompson said. “And I actually recorded it on my phone to re-watch it.”

It may be one of the lowest points of Thompson’s career, but the senior uses it as a motivational tool to continue to improve and as proof of how far he has come since last October.

“I click on it just to remind me where I was and what I’m trying to prevent to be the role player I said I need to be,” Thompson said.

Thomas, on the other hand, cringes at the sight of that touchdown, as well as most of his plays from last season.

“I seen it today in film, but just watching the film of my last year’s self was like night and day,” Thomas said Tuesday. “Every time I watched myself last year it just reminded me to keep working because I don’t want that happening again.”

With another season of experience under his belt, Thomas has noticed a huge development in his play over the past year.

“I was young,” Thomas said. “Everything I see on film was just bad in my own eyes. Just watching myself, how I’ve grown so much and how I play now versus last year is a big difference.”

Both Thomas and Thompson are having the best seasons of their respective careers. Thomas intercepted a pair of passes against Kansas and is tied with senior linebacker Jordan Hicks and senior cornerback Quandre Diggs for the team lead in that category with three.

Thompson, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time playing corner when the defense was in its nickel package. For the most part, he has held his own and has continued to improve as the season wears on.

“It’s getting more comfortable [playing corner] just because this is my first year playing it,” Thompson said. “So, it’s always rough at the beginning, but as the season goes on, I am getting more comfortable back at playing corner.”

If there is anything to be learned from cornerback Duke Thomas’ performance in last week’s 23-0 victory over Kansas, it’s that the junior is brimming with confidence.

“The thing about Duke now is that he has a lot of confidence; sometimes he plays with too much of it,” head coach Charlie Strong said after the game. 

At times, that confidence can work in his favor, as it did in his two-interception performance against the Jayhawks. Other times, it can lead to a blown assignment that results in a game-losing touchdown, as was the case against UCLA. Regardless of the result, as every defensive back knows, the only thing that matters is the next play.

“You have to have a short memory at cornerback,” Thomas said.

He never watched the blown assignment against the Bruins again. When they got to that play in film study, defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn skipped over it.

“It didn’t really break my confidence,” Thomas said after beating Kansas. “I was upset that I let my team down, but it definitely feels good to come out and have two interceptions this game and have a good win.”

Thomas’ first interception came in the second quarter after he put himself in a great position to make the play.

“He does a great job of covering,” Strong said. “The thing he does is study receivers during the week, so he knows the throws and what is going to happen.”

Two possessions later, Thomas, a native of Killeen, Texas, was at it again. In the waning seconds of the first half, Kansas sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart fired a pass deep downfield and Thomas undercut it, notching what he thought was his second pick of the game. However, a roughing the passer penalty wiped the play out. But, on the very next play, Cozart threw a Hail Mary into the end zone to end the half, and Thomas came up with it again.

“After [the first] play, I was really upset and Quandre [Diggs] is laughing at me talking about, ‘Yeah you get no picks; you not gonna have more than me,’” Thomas said. “But I ended up getting another one [and] over here in the corner, we started laughing at each other.” 

Thomas didn’t stop there. In the third quarter, he broke up a Kansas pass on fourth down from the Texas five-yard line to help preserve the shutout.

Thomas’ play may finally be catching up to his confidence level, which would drastically help the Longhorns navigate through their conference schedule.

“He’s just getting better every week,” senior receiver John Harris said. “You know, we go at it all the time in practice, and, I mean, it shows up on the field just like you saw.”

The Longhorns host Baylor this weekend and will likely be more than two-touchdown underdogs come kick off. Fifth-year senior receiver Antwan Goodley is healthy, and freshman phenom KD Cannon is one of the Bears’ other receivers who can make plays.

“Our whole defense really got to take on challenges when they come,“ Thomas said. “And we are going to try to step up to the occasion and make plays happen.”

Only time will tell if Thomas’ performance against Kansas proves to be the turning point of his career. One thing is certain, however; even when he struggles, the junior won’t be one to doubt his own abilities.

“I don’t think you are going to ever shatter his confidence,” Strong said. “Even if he had got beat out everyday, he would bounce back somehow. He’s not going to get broken down.”

Stock Up: Jordan Hicks

Fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Hicks, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week, was dominant against Kansas, recording 15 sacks and an interception. Even he acknowledged that it was probably the best game of his career. He is leading a Texas defense that is 11th in the nation in tackles for loss and eighth in sacks. This week will be a bigger challenge as he will have his hands full with Baylor’s big offensive line, which is just one of two lines in the nation that has yet to allow a single quarterback sack this year. But with Baylor’s dynamic passing game lurking behind the line, Hicks will need to put pressure on redshirt senior quarterback Bryce Petty to keep him out of his rhythm, so look for Hicks to really push the issue up front.

Stock Down: Kent Perkins

With all the injuries, suspensions and dismissals on the offensive line, sophomore Kent Perkins made the transition to tackle. With Baylor’s defensive line playing incredibly well, albeit against sub-par teams, Perkins may struggle Saturday. Baylor is fifth in the nation in tackles for loss and second in sacks. That’s not a good sign for a line that has replacements all over, and Perkins may take the bulk of the blame
this weekend.

Stock Up: Duke Thomas

After spending a week on the wrong end of this list, junior cornerback Duke Thomas came back with arguably the best game of his career against Kansas. With Quandre Diggs on the other side, Kansas tried to pick on Thomas, who was torched for a game-winning touchdown against UCLA the game prior. But Thomas was up to the challenge, recording two interceptions and helping Texas record its first shutout since early 2012. With Baylor’s top offense coming into town this week, Thomas will certainly give up more catches and won’t have nearly as clean of a game. But, if he can slow them down even a little and make a play here and there, it could give Texas a chance. If there’s one game where it helps to come in with confidence, this week’s would be the one.

Stock Down: Malcolm Brown

Since his two touchdown performance against North Texas to start the season, Brown has been inefficient. He’s averaging less than 48 yards per game while being a non-factor in the passing game. When former quarterback David Ash went out, many looked to the former five-star recruit to carry the offense, but he hasn’t lived up to the expectations. Part of the reason for his inefficiency is the rebuilt offensive line, which has struggled to get a push. Unfortunately for Brown, the offensive line isn’t going to turn it around overnight, and, with Baylor’s sixth-ranked run defense coming into town, things do not look bright for Brown at this point.

By its standard, Texas’ secondary struggled mightily last year. Longhorns defensive backs occasionally looked like they had cement in their cleats trying to make tackles. Texas, accustomed to fielding some of the nation’s best secondaries since Duane Akina arrived 12 years ago, posted mediocre numbers. 

Enter Duke Thomas. 

The sophomore from Copperas Cove will make his first career start this weekend against New Mexico State, edging out older players like juniors Sheroid Evans and Leroy Scott. And he’ll provide the spark that keeps the Longhorns from having another second-rate secondary.

He’s been getting glowing reviews from his teammates and coaches ever since he enrolled early last spring. Thomas was even once considered an option at wide receiver, playing both ways in this year’s spring game. For now, he’ll work on shutting down opposing wideouts.

“He’s a hard worker,” senior safety Adrian Phillips said. “If you’re a hard worker and you understand the game, you have a chance to play here. He tries to do everything right and that’s what you want from a young corner. He wants to come in and make a big impact.”

Normally, the Longhorns depth chart features four starters in the secondary – two cornerbacks and two safeties. But Texas made room for Thomas, moving two-year starter Quandre Diggs from cornerback to nickel. 

This gives the Longhorns the flexibility to move Diggs around and match up better against prolific passing attacks. And it also gives them the chance to put their best young defensive back on the field early and often.

“He’s a guy I always thought would be a great player for us,” Diggs said of Thomas. “I love having Duke on the field just because of the fact that I know he’s going to know exactly what to do. He’s going to come with 110 percent on each and every play.”

After showing promise in 2011, the Texas secondary took major steps backward in 2012. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 7.9 yards per attempt (No. 99 in the FBS), posted a collective 131.7 QB rating (No. 64) and completed nearly 60 percent of their passes.

The talent has always been there. Diggs and Carrington Byndom have been mainstays in the Longhorns secondary for the past two years, with Phillips emerging as a bona fide starter last season. Seven Longhorns defensive backs, including Thomas, made the Rivals250 cut coming out of high school. 

He’s done everything right since the moment he stepped on campus. He hasn’t gotten in trouble with the law, hasn’t complained about being moved around or even suffered an injury.

He’s made the most of every opportunity presented to him, playing in every game last year and making 12 tackles, eight of them on special teams, the second-most on the team. Thomas made three catches for 27 yards in this year’s spring game when his coaches wanted to see what the high school quarterback could do at wide receiver.

Less talented secondaries outperformed Texas’ secondary last season. Guys like Byndom, Diggs and Phillips have heard the criticism all offseason long. They’re ready to prove they can silence those critics. 

And Thomas is ready to prove he belongs.