Duke Thomas has always stood out.
Sometimes even for good reasons.
Like this summer, when the Texas cornerback was the sole Longhorn on the preseason All-Big 12 team. That makes it kind of a lonely spot for Thomas, but then cornerbacks play on islands anyway, and he’s capable of being that good.
That’s much better than some of the attention he received during the past two seasons, when he got picked on more than an officer candidate at Quantico boot camp.
Take the UCLA game.
It was his mental blunder that cost Texas in the final three minutes, when the junior cornerback bit on a pump fake by backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel and a double move by wideout Jordan Payton, resulting in a 33-yard touchdown for a 20-17 UCLA win.
“You win some; you lose some,” Thomas said, now nearly a year later. “It was really a dumb play. I got too greedy. Too greedy to make a play. I should not have let that happen. I know what I did wrong.”
So did the other 60,479 in attendance. Payton had just shy of 1,000 yards in receptions last season, but that doesn’t salve Thomas’ wounds.
In some respects, Thomas was the poster boy for the Longhorns’ 2014 season because that was a hugely significant play in Charlie Strong’s first year. Sure, Texas made plenty of other fateful mistakes that September night, from a botched coin toss to poor run defense to horrendous punt coverage.
“It was probably my most disappointing moment,” said Thomas, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior. “Bad things happen. We moved past it, and now we’re all on the same page.”
Had Thomas done what he was supposed to, Texas could have escaped with a momentum-seizing victory over a formidable Pac-12 opponent and left AT&T Stadium with a 2-1 record and some badly needed confidence.
But it didn’t, and the Longhorns lost four of their first six games to send them spiraling through a 6-7 season.
“That game,” Strong said,”was the one we needed to get. It took the air out of us. Who knows where our program could have gone from there?”
Add a win over 12th-ranked UCLA – a 10-3 team that would go on to beat Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl – and Texas would have taken a 3-1 record into a home game with Baylor. The Longhorns played the eventual co-champion Bears on even terms for almost three quarters and might have been in position to pull the upset, save for an ill-conceived, long field goal try that was blocked and returned for a touchdown and Tyrone Swoopes’ fumbled snap at the lip of the goal line.
Thomas vows not to repeat his UCLA mistake. And he certainly has owned it. But the pressure’s still on for him to be the leader of the secondary. It’s time.
He could be the poster boy for this season as well, because he’s the only senior in the secondary and he’ll be expected to step into Quandre Diggs’ shoes as the ultimate leader. Thomas is incredibly athletic. He played quarterback and wide receiver at Copperas Cove, and he could return punts for the Longhorns.
“Duke watched Quandre play for three years, and he was a mentor to Duke,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “Duke’s played a lot for us, and he wants to be a playmaker.”
Coincidentally enough, prized freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson said Thomas is the Longhorn he’s looked up to the most.
“When I first got here, he was intimidating,” Jefferson said. “He’s short, but he’s got that mouth.”
Sounds as if Thomas learned from Diggs’ leadership style – the vocal Diggs called out teammates for not caring enough and for accepting losing.
“Quandre would definitely do it,” Thomas said. “It’s understood what we needed. He just happened to say it. We’re not letting it happen again. Losing will not be taken lightly.”
That was never a problem for Thomas, who led his Copperas Cove teams into the football playoffs but also lettered in baseball, basketball and track and field. He threw for more than 1,700 yards and ran for 2,520 yards in his last two seasons there, and he has six career interceptions and 115 total tackles at Texas.
Thomas likes the makeup of the secondary, where hard-hitting Jason Hall and aggressive Dylan Haines return at safety while Bryson Echols, Antwuan Davis, John Bonney and a host of freshmen such as Holton Hill and Kris Boyd will compete for the other cornerback spot. He’s glad to be back for another chance at redemption.
They’ll all share camp stories as well as dorm rooms this month in preparation for the opener at Notre Dame, although Thomas isn’t looking forward to the living quarters.
“The mattresses in the dorms, they’re terrible,” he complained. “I may have to buy me a mattress softener.”
And keep his hard edge.
Contact Kirk Bohls at 512-445-3772.