The 2013 season saw the departures of two starters from the secondary for the Texas Longhorns, leaving new defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn in need of some breakout performances from his younger players.
One of those players is junior cornerback Duke Thomas, who has seen action in 26 games during his Texas career, including 10 starts in 2013 at the boundary position that was vacated when senior cornerback Quandre Diggs made the move to
As with many young players, especially at a position at which failures are difficult to disguise, Thomas has experienced peaks and valleys through his first two seasons on campus out of Copperas Cove, where he played multiple positions, including quarterback.
One of the unquestioned valleys came against Iowa State in front of a national television audience on a Thursday night that saw the Horns struggle mightily against the Cyclones in Ames.
After two empty possessions to start the second half, an Anthony Fera punt helped downed at the Iowa State two yard-line helped the Horns pin the Cyclones against their own goalline. Facing a 3rd and 9 situation, it looked as if Texas could get the ball back with outstanding field position if the defense could just get a stop.
It didn't happen and the longest play in Iowa State history was the result.
Sophomore wide receiver Quenton Bundrage ran a simple slant route from the left side of the formation, the Texas linebacker was slow to get underneath the route, and Thomas made the critical mistake of attempting to make a play on the ball and missing.
And just as Thomas took himself out of position to make the tackle, safety Mykkele Thompson did the same from deep safety position, allowing Bundrage an abundance of turf in front of him.
"Playing defensive back, you have to have a short memory," Thomas said on Saturday, no doubt reflecting on plays like the long touchdown given up to Bundrage.
"You are going to win some, you are going to lose some; it is all part of the game. So, if you get burned, you still have to understand there is a whole new play every snap."
With the now-departed Carrington Byndom working to the field and Diggs in the nickel, opponents often targeted Thomas, believing that he was the weakest cornerback in that group. In no game was that more apparent than against Kansas State, when Thomas was primarily responsible for allowing 213 receiving yards to star receiver Tyler Lockett.
However, there were plenty of snaps where Thomas was able to make a positive impact on the field -- he secured three interceptions on the season, which ended up leading the team. In fact, those three interceptions accounted for 30% of the team's total on the season.
So it wasn't all valleys for Thomas as a sophomore.
One of his best performances came in the resounding upset victory over rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. In the game, Thomas posted five tackles, one interception, and one pass break up, one of the three passes he defensed on the year.
The interception came at a crucial time in the game -- the Sooners came out of halftime with a field goal to cut the Longhorns lead to 23-13 and after a failed Texas possession, the defense was able to force a three and out by Oklahoma that led to the game-changing punt return for a touchdown by Daje Johnson.
But even with the Horns holding on to a 29-13 lead, two touchdowns and two extra points could have evened the affair, making the next possession for the Sooners a critical one to the game's outcome.
After driving into Texas territory, Thomas intercepted a pass from Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell and the offense took advantage when quarterback Case McCoy subsequently hit wide receiver Mike Davis for a 38-yard touchdown pass to effectively put the game out of reach.
Thomas was also one of the players who helped pile on Texas Tech on Thanksgiving, posting a career-high seven tackles, his first career sack, and an interception.
As Thomas heads into a critical third season at Texas, he received a strong endorsement from Diggs over the weekend.
"Duke can play," said Diggs on Saturday. "That's my little brother. When he came in he had the same attitude I had when I came in. He wanted to play. He wanted to push guys. He comes to work each and every day. I'm trying to get him to talk a little more trash, but he is coming along. He is a good player. He is a good player and he striving to be great. We are working on it every day."
Having come to Texas with little experience as a defensive back, the first thing that Thomas had to do was learn the nuances of the position, efforts that are ongoing.
"My first year I didn't understand how to play the position," he said. "Now, I'm finally settling in, understanding splits and wide receiver jams and things like that. I am definitely getting more comfortable in my spot."
Working with Vaughn and new defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who has coached the position in the past and played defensive back at Texas, has helped Thomas in that process. Along with understanding splits and how to jam receivers, Thomas has also been working on understanding wide receiver route combinations.
All together, the work has helped him elevate his game, in his own words, to position the 5'11, 178-pounder for what could be a breakout season.