Newly named starter Duke Thomas poised for breakout sophomore season

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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.