- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before Texas begins its first season under Charlie Strong, we're taking a deep dive into all the talent he inherits in 2014. Our Burnt Orange Breakdown series will take a closer look at each scholarship player returning this fall and what we can expect from him. We're going down the roster from No. 1 Shiro Davis all the way to No. 99 Desmond Jackson.
No. 21 Duke Thomas
Recruitment rewind: Orlando "Duke" Thomas was a four-star athlete who did a little bit of everything at Copperas Cove (Texas) High School. As a quarterback/receiver/defensive back, he accounted for more than 4,200 yards of offense in his final two seasons. In his spare time he played basketball and baseball and ran track. Thomas committed at a junior day over offers from Texas A&M and TCU and enrolled early the following spring.
Career so far: Thomas saw limited playing time on defense as a true freshman but recorded eight special teams tackles. In the spring of 2012, Texas coaches experimented with using him at wide receiver in addition to his corner duties, and he caught three passes in the spring game. But an impressive showing in fall camp prompted Duane Akina to name him a starting cornerback. Thomas had an up-and-down year but had a team-high three interceptions plus five pass breakups and 50 tackles.
Best-case scenario for 2014: Under new secondary coaches Vance Bedford and Chris Vaughn, Thomas takes the next step and becomes a trusted playmaker. You hate to say it, but former Texas CB Carrington Byndom plateaued to some extent after an All-Big 12 sophomore season. Byndom, while a nice player, didn't get that much better in his next two years. That can't be the case for Thomas, who got burned a few too many times last season, but you somewhat expect that from a first-year starter. If they play up to their vast potential, the corner tandem of Thomas-Quandre Diggs can be one of the league's best.
Worst-case scenario for 2014: New secondary coaches means new schemes and new demands. How Thomas fares in his third year in the program will depend on how well he can keep up and master his role in the new defense. Once again, he'll be put on an island in a pass-happy league that returns a lot of talented wideouts. If he struggles early on, Bedford and Vaughn will have other options.
Future expectations: Thomas has the killer speed to jump a pass and take it to the house, he just hasn't had those opportunities so far. He was still a work in progress in 2013, and Akina was wise to stick with him and remain confident that Thomas could handle the responsibility. He'll enter this fall with much more confidence and the pride of knowing it's on him to keep the "DBU" tradition going these next two years.