Texas Longhorns: 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.
1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 1): Juco safety Kenny Iloka was one of the storylines of the spring in Fort Worth, augmenting an already loaded secondary. In TCU’s spring game, Iloka scored a touchdown off a fumble return and picked off a pass, underscoring pretty much how he performed all spring. Iloka could probably start for the majority of teams in the Big 12. At TCU, he’s a backup. Coach Gary Patterson seemingly praised Ranthony Texada more than anyone else on his roster this spring, and the redshirt freshman cornerback looks poised to step into the starting role vacated by All-American Jason Verrett. At 5-foot-9, Texada isn’t big. Then again, neither was Verrett. Safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett and cornerback Kevin White could play for anyone in the conference. In other words, this TCU secondary is stacked.
2. Texas (2): Texas is one of the few teams in the Big 12 without really any position battle in its secondary coming out of the spring. Senior safeties Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner have been up and down throughout their careers, but they really buttoned up their play in the spring. Thompson delivered a pick-six in the Orange-White game. Turner had the hit of the day and intercepted a pass. At cornerback, Quandre Diggs isn’t an All-American, but he’s developed into a solid veteran leader. Duke Thomas can really run at the other cornerback spot. This is a sound group.
3. Oklahoma (3): The Sooners return two proven players in cornerback Zack Sanchez and nickel back Julian Wilson. Sanchez was erratic at times last season, but he displayed mental toughness and usually came back with big plays of his own after getting burned. Wilson will be a three-year starter. Safety Quentin Hayes had a decent junior season, too. After that, things get murky, and that’s not necessarily a negative. Dakota Austin, who was an unheralded two-star signee last year, is probably the favorite coming out of the spring to start at cornerback opposite Sanchez and over more heralded classmate Stanvon Taylor. Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd are both talented young safeties, but they have yet to prove they’re every-down players. Steven Parker II will be the player to watch here. Insiders in Norman believe the incoming true freshman has the talent and the temperament to win a starting job by the opener the way Tony Jefferson did in 2010. If he does, that will allow coordinator Mike Stoops to utilize Byrd and Thomas in certain sub-packages where the scheme will be more simplified.
4. Kansas State (4): K-State already boasts one of the best nickel backs in the league in Randall Evans and an up-and-coming safety in Dante Barnett. The Wildcats had a productive spring elsewhere in their secondary, as Morgan Burns stepped up to essentially nail down a starting job at corner. Coveted juco transfer Danzel McDaniel progressed after arriving on campus and exited spring ball on the cusp of earning the other starting cornerback gig. Dylan Schellenberg, who started the two games Ty Zimmerman missed last season, will go into the fall as the favorite to start at safety alongside Barnett.
5. West Virginia (5): The Mountaineers might have the best underclassman cornerback in the league in sophomore Daryl Worley, who locked up Mario Alford in West Virginia’s spring game. Worley was fabulous all spring, and he brings a maturity and attitude that defies his age. Like Worley, Karl Joseph started as a true freshman, and he could be on the verge of turning into one of the best safeties in the Big 12 as a junior. It will be interesting to see if incoming blue-chip freshman Dravon Henry can break into the rotation at cornerback, which would only make this secondary better.
6. Kansas (6): Senior cornerback Dexter McDonald put in the work during the offseason, and it showed in Kansas’ spring game. He's become a technically-sound player. Fellow cornerback Kevin Short, a juco transfer forced by the NCAA to sit out last season, can fly. Safety Isaiah Johnson, who became the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year after picking off five passes last season, had another pick in the spring game. With four starters back from last fall, plus the addition of Short, Kansas’ secondary will be the team's strength next season.
7. Oklahoma State (7): The emergence of Ashton Lampkin was a positive development for the Cowboys. Lampkin had a pick-six in the “Orange Blitz” scrimmage, and after two seasons as a key backup, looks ready to take over as a starting cornerback opposite All-Big 12 hopeful Kevin Peterson. The Cowboys are completely inexperienced at safety, with second-year players Jordan Sterns, Deric Robertson, Jerel Morrow and Tre Flowers basically comprising the position. Only time will determine how effective the Cowboys can be at the back end.
8. Texas Tech (8): The Red Raiders have to feel good about their safeties coming out of the spring. Keenon Ward was the defensive MVP and brought the hammer all spring. J.J. Gaines will soon be completely back from a season-ending shoulder injury. He played extremely well through five games last season. Justis Nelson is oozing confidence after earning a starting job as a true freshman last fall. The biggest question is at the other cornerback spot. Sophomore La’Darius Newbold is currently the starter, but speedy true freshman Nigel Bethel II could make noise once he arrives this summer.
9. Baylor (9): The rebuild of a secondary that graduated four starters remains a work in progress. Sophomore Orion Stewart had the best spring of the young players and looks primed to take over the deep safety role held by All-American Ahmad Dixon. Sophomore cornerbacks Terrence Singleton and Xavien Howard also won starting jobs, but they’ll have to fend off juco transfer Chris Sanders in the preseason. Walk-on senior Collin Brence was the surprise of the spring and is listed as the starter at nickelback. This a group, though, that still has more questions to answer.
10: Iowa State (10): Nigel Tribune, who was the only true freshman to play at Iowa State in the past two seasons, is one of the best young cornerbacks in the league and a cornerstone defender for the Cyclones. The rest of the secondary is a big fat unknown. Juco transfer Devron Moore, whom Iowa State beat TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia for, left school in the middle of spring ball with homesickness. He is dubious to return. That leaves juco transfer Qujuan Floyd, redshirt freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya and T.J. Mutcherson, who suffered an MCL injury in the spring game (he should be back in June), as Iowa State’s only remaining options at safety.
1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.
2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.
4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.
5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,
7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.
8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.
9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.
10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.
1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.
2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.
3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.
4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.
5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.
6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.
7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.
8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.
9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.
10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.
The right word might be trust. Duke Thomas earned a lot of trust in 2013.
It started around this time last season, when the then-sophomore was so electric in spring practices that Texas coaches talked seriously about letting him become a two-way player.
He lined up at wide receiver in the spring game and caught three passes. He could return kicks, too. Thomas had been on campus less than a year and he was already emerging as one of Texas’ most promising underclassmen.
For the most part, he was. Thomas didn’t get exposed in his first year as a starter. He was solid, sometimes great. He led the Longhorns with three interceptions. He started 10 games, notched 50 tackles, five pass breakups and 17 returns.
Two of those picks came in critical victories over Oklahoma and Texas Tech. And Thomas was humbled a time or two, most notably when Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage beat him and raced 97 yards for a touchdown.
He put in a year of starting time. He learned and he got better. What’s he capable of as a junior?
Texas needs Thomas to take the next step, especially with Carrington Byndom gone and Sheroid Evans on the mend from a torn ACL. Diggs is back for his final season and brings the kind of leadership and swagger this secondary needs.
Thomas, meanwhile, has to bring his best and impress new position coaches Vance Bedford and Chris Vaughn.
He’s got to show the same stuff he displayed last spring and again in fall camp, the kind of talent that makes sidelining him impossible. But staying on the field won’t be enough, not if this Texas defense wants to keep up in a year when every Big 12 school is seemingly loaded at receiver.
In this league, the cornerback spot can become a real advantage for Texas in 2014. But that’s going to depend on just how much better Thomas can get this spring and beyond.
On Tuesday, we brought you a look ahead at the 2014 offensive depth chart for Texas. Here's a breakdown of what the Longhorns are working with on defense. It's a unit that loses key starters but brings back considerable experience.
Remember, this is subject to change plenty in the coming months as Strong's staff shuffles the lineup and discovers new breakout players.
Cedric Reed, senior
Bryce Cottrell, sophomore
Once the new staff is in place, winning over Reed and convincing him to return for his senior season will be an absolute must for Strong. He finished with 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a junior and was just as good as Jeffcoat for most of the season. Between Cottrell and Caleb Bluiett, who started in the Valero Alamo Bowl, Texas must find a significant contributor. Both are under a lot of pressure if Reed goes pro.
Hassan Ridgeway, sophomore
Brown has the makings of becoming an All-Big 12-caliber defensive tackle and maybe more. He’ll be one of the best players on the field for this defense in 2014. Ridgeway is still young and coming along, but showed flashes in limited stints this season. Big potential there.
Desmond Jackson, senior
Alex Norman, sophomore
Tank Jackson has 13 starts and plenty of experience. Norman and fellow redshirt freshman Paul Boyette disappointed in their first year of playing, but Texas is running low on depth here after taking some recruiting hits. Abilene’s Jake McMillon is the only DT pledge left. Strong will have to recruit this spot hard in the next month.
Shiro Davis, junior
Derick Roberson, freshman
There should be some fairly good competition to replace Jackson Jeffcoat, and nobody would be surprised if Davis wins the job. He’s a freakish athlete and speed rusher who flashed in 2013 and needs an expanded role. Roberson needs to put on weight, but he was a sack master in high school and is one of the gems of this class.
Jordan Hicks, senior
Kendall Thompson, senior
What is Texas getting in year five with Hicks? The injury-prone former five-star recruit went down with a torn Achilles four games into the season and has missed 19 games in the past two seasons. He’s a leader when he’s healthy. This is his last chance. Thompson and Tevin Jackson return to provide depth.
Dalton Santos, junior
Peter Jinkens, junior
It’s hard to know which direction Texas will go in at some of these spots, as both seem like obvious candidates. That’s the challenge with everyone coming back. The Longhorns’ next defensive coordinator has the luxury of several options with every UT linebacker slated to return next season.
Steve Edmond, senior
Tim Cole, sophomore
It’s entirely possible Santos takes over the middle next season, considering the way he finished this season, but don’t count out Edmond. He had a promising junior year before missing the final two games. Cole got a few opportunities in his debut year, but has work to do.
Quandre Diggs, senior
Sheroid Evans, junior
Diggs had a solid junior season and won’t be turning pro this offseason. He played all over the field in his nickel role, but with Carrington Byndom graduating, that likely means he’ll slide back to corner. The speedy, long-armed Evans has as much potential as anyone in this secondary, but suffered a torn ACL this season.
Mykkele Thompson, senior
Adrian Colbert, sophomore
Josh Turner, senior
Leroy Scott, senior
With Adrian Phillips graduating, this is presumably Turner’s spot to lose. He’s played in 37 games. Scott is sneaky good and made a few nice plays this season. It’s time to see what he can do with more responsibility.
Duke Thomas, junior
Antwuan Davis, redshirt freshman
Thomas took a few lumps in his first season of starting, but also led the Longhorns with three interceptions. Davis is a guy coaches would’ve loved to play in 2013, but they didn’t want to burn his redshirt. He’s in for a big-time debut both on defense and special teams.
Nick Rose, junior
Will Russ, senior
Texas should have a fairly open competition for Anthony Fera’s punting duties. Rose’s specialty is kickoffs, and Russ was hampered by injuries in the past but should be in the mix. So is walk-on Mitchell Becker.
Safety Orion Stewart, Baylor: As the injury bug hit the Bears defense, Stewart has stepped up during his redshirt freshman season. He quietly led Baylor with eight tackles and added an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown in his team’s 41-38 win over TCU. He’s an example of the improved depth and playmaking ability the Bears have recruited to the program. His 12-tackle outing against Oklahoma State gives him 20 total tackles in Baylor’s last two games.
Linebacker Michael Reynolds, Kansas: The Jayhawks junior linebacker was very solid in KU’s 31-10 loss to Kansas State. Reynolds finished with six tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. It was the third time in the last six games he has recorded at least five tackles.
Safety Jacques Washington, Iowa State: The senior was outstanding in his final game as a Cyclone. He led the squad with eight tackles, including six solo stops, along with two interceptions, one fumble recovery and one tackle for loss. Washington’s fourth quarter interception helped ISU tie the game at 38 and send it into overtime in the Cyclones’ 52-44 win.
Cornerback Duke Thomas, Texas: Overlooked as Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed combined to record six sacks, Thomas finished with six tackles including two tackles for loss, one sack and one interception. The sophomore was constantly around the ball in the Longhorns’ 41-16 win over Texas Tech on Thanksgiving night. His speed and athleticism should be an asset on UT’s defense for the next two seasons.
Running back B.J. Catalon, TCU: The sophomore was one of the Horned Frogs' most explosive playmakers this season and ended the year with 163 all-purpose yards in his team’s 41-38 loss to Baylor. Catalon had 11 carries for 93 yards, averaging 8.5 yards per carry, but he did have a fumble. Nonetheless, he’s a solid piece for TCU’s offense to build upon in 2014.
Quarterback Michael Brewer, Texas Tech: Brewer saw limited action in mop-up duty during the Red Raiders’ 41-16 loss to Texas. Yet he provided some hope for the future by completing 7 of 8 passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. He was expected to be TTU’s starter before a back injury derailed his season, but his performance in the fourth quarter showed the Red Raiders could have three quality options at the quarterback position heading into their bowl game and the 2014 season, raising the overall competition at the position, which is never a bad thing.
Safety Jeremy Tyler, West Virginia: The performance of the true freshman should be a bright spot for Mountaineers fans after watching their squad squander a 38-21 fourth-quarter lead against Iowa State. Tyler had 10 tackles, including seven solo stops, along with 2.5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble in WVU’s 52-44 overtime loss. He entered the game with seven tackles in the first 11 games.
Texas' new depth chart made official on Monday what had been talked about all summer long. Diggs will move over from corner and start at nickel back, a decision that creates some interesting ripple effects for the rest of the Longhorns defense.
All three are cashing NFL paychecks these days, so from that standpoint, Diggs knows how helpful the move to nickel can be.
“I’m very excited about this position, don’t get me wrong. It’s a position that great players have played,” Diggs said. “It’s a big position in the game of football now, especially in the Big 12. Nickel defense is pretty much your base defense each and every week. I’m happy for the opportunity.”
In this conference, a trustworthy nickel back is a must. If defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s estimates are correct, Texas might’ve had five defensive backs on the field for 75 percent of its snaps last season.
So it only makes sense to put one of your secondary’s best assets in a role that’s more critical than ever. Diaz lauded Diggs’ ability to diagnose plays and make quick decisions, his experience playing man and zone, his confidence in covering the slot and how he’s a physical tackler.
“One of the rules is, the more instinctive of a player you are, the closer you want to line that guy up to the football,” Diaz said. “Certainly one thing Quandre has shown over the last two years is he has great instincts for playing the game. If you’re just playing pickup football, Quandre is a guy you want on your team.”
The former Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year has picked off eight passes and recorded 22 pass breakups in two seasons. Though he’ll still play corner in base defense, Diggs is excited by the possibility of making plays all over the field this fall.
“It plays a lot of different factors in the game,” Diggs said. “You get to blitz, you get to cover, you get to do all different type of stuff and disguises. It puts me closer to the line of scrimmage to go make more plays. That’s something I’m very, very excited about.”
To make this move, though, Diaz and secondary coach Duane Akina had to have faith in the cornerbacks who will step into Diggs’ role on the outside.
Duke Thomas has earned a major vote of confidence from players and coaches after an impressive three weeks of fall camp. Diggs wouldn’t be moving out of his usual gig if Thomas wasn’t ready.
“You have to believe what the film tells you,” Diaz said. “What the film says is that Duke is one of our best players. We’re not into playing favorites. We’ve got to play the guys that we think are the best, and Duke has earned that right.”
The sophomore was supposed to split time at receiver in camp but he was too talented to move away from corner. The rise of Thomas and Sheroid Evans in recent weeks created opportunities for creativity.
Diggs has been working in the nickel since bowl practices last December. He’s glad the challenges of the role will make him a more well-rounded defensive back.
As the brother of 12-year NFL cornerback Quentin Jammer, getting to the pros is of course in the back of Diggs’ mind. He knows a year of playing nickel will help get him where he wants to be.
But that NFL future isn’t something he pays much attention to these days. He’s got a new position to master first.
“It’s not my time to think about that,” Diggs said. “I’m a junior. I’ve just got to continue to go out and play and let my play do the talking.”
Football, after all, is a team sport. And Texas likes to take that concept to a new level. Take, for instance, any question about a quarterback from the two previous seasons. Almost every answer was started with "Both those guys," not putting one above the other or either above the team.
But Texas has turned the page and in a new era of accountability and, in an effort to applaud individual efforts, Texas coach Mack Brown dispensed with the regular lumping together of players when asked about who has stood out to him. Instead, the veteran coach had no problem pointing fingers at those individuals who have excelled, thereby also possibly pointing one at those who need to pick up the pace.
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That the defense briefly did change in the second half was more the result of a Herculean effort by one, now departed, senior, Alex Okafor, and a completely depleted Oregon State offensive line.
Now the time has come to see if Diaz, in his third season at Texas, will make any permanent changes to what was the worst defense in program history. He has lost his two most productive and best players, Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro. But he does return nine starters, including linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was injured in the third game last season. So there are some reasons for optimism. Texas coach Mack Brown pointed out that Diaz led a unit that ranked No. 11 in defense in 2011, and he didn’t forget how to coach.
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No. 21 Duke Thomas
Sophomore defensive back
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That has led to 34 true freshmen -- the most in FBS -- hitting the field in the past two seasons. Texas’ hand was forced in some respects. It had to bridge a talent gap created by recruiting misses, particularly those in the 2009 class. Now, the result is that the gap has been somewhat plugged. Or, at the very least, there is a prevailing thought that field is full -- 19 starters return -- leaving little room for any of the true freshmen in the 2013 class to make a significant impact.
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First down: Questions about running backs
Will Texas' transition to a spread attack on offense be unfriendly to the running backs? No. Nothing could be further from the truth.
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But when Texas gets back to work, all might not be in the same positions. Therein lies the luxury of having so many starters as well as having played 34 freshmen and sophomores over the past two years. It allows for versatility. Some mixing and matching if you will.
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