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Longhorns CB Duke Thomas seeking All-Conference potential

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With a big leadership role left open by Quandre Diggs departing, Texas' best defensive back saying the right things. Now he needs to back it up on the field, buoyed by a team-oriented realization.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

All of a sudden, Texas Longhorns cornerback Duke Thomas is a senior, the most experienced member of a secondary that lost its top two players, a leader in the defensive backs room, and the school's only representative on the preseason All-Big 12 first team.

Last September, he was a fan whipping boy after he gave up the game-winning touchdown pass to UCLA late in the fourth quarter when he bit on a double move and gave up the lead from 33 yards out 133 seconds after taking the lead.

It was a crushing moment for a team looking for it first signature win under new head coach Charlie Strong and coming off a second straight devastating loss against BYU.

"I should not have let that happen," Thomas said at Big 12 Media Days. "I know as a player, I'm better than that. I look at that experience and I know what I did wrong. It doesn't bother me to talk about it. Really, I learned from the experience ... It was really a dumb play I made."

While the defensive scheme devised by head coach Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford prefers to rely on some disguise over complexity to allow defenders to play as quickly as possible, defensive backs especially must still maintain their discipline.

"First of all the coverage didn't even call for me to take that route ... I got too greedy," Thomas said. "It was too greedy of a play. That's what I learned -- I need to just play within the defense."

Unfortunately, that lesson didn't necessarily click quickly for Thomas, who made several big mistakes on the crushing second-quarter drive engineered by Kansas State in Manhattan. The 12-play, 85-yard march took nearly six minutes off the clock and featured three third-down conversions and two big mistakes by Thomas.

The first came when Thomas committed a pass interference penalty because he got caught out of position against star Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett and grabbed Lockett's hand instead of positioning himself correctly to set up a 3rd and 7. It was his second pass intereference penalty of the first half.

The most egregious of the three first-half mistakes, however, came on 3rd and 14 from the Texas 32. An incompletion or a short gain would have forced the Wildcats into a long field goal to take a 9-0 lead. Instead, Kansas State took advantage of Thomas' proclivity to jump on double moves, running a slant and go that fooled the Texas cornerback and resulted in a huge 29-yard gain for Lockett.

On the following play, running back Demarcus Robinson punched it in from three yards out and the air completely went out of the Longhorns team. The end result was the school's first shutout since losing 12-0 against Oklahoma in 2004.

The struggles giving up big plays even go back to the 2013 season, when Thomas attempted to undercut a simple slant route by Iowa State's Quenton Bundrage and exposed safety Mykkele Thompson's poor angle, resulting in the longest play from scrimmage in Cyclones history of 97 yards.

Yet, those plays don't define the player Thomas could become this season.

He earned his unique nickname of Duke when he was a child -- his father gave it to him because his bowlegged walk was reminiscent of John Wayne, the old Western movie star known as the Duke.

So the Copperas Cove product has to maintain a certain amount of swagger to live up to his namesake and to retain the level of confidence necessary to play such a high-profile position. As the team's top cornerback this season, he may need to move around the field to shadow the top opposing wide receiver, as Quandre Diggs did so successfully last season against West Virginia.

Here's a surprise, though -- junior safety Dylan Haines made quite the statement when asked to describe how vocal Thomas is compared to the notoriously outspoken Diggs.

"Yeah, if not more vocal," Haines said. "Quandre is great player and definitely a leader out there. Duke really understands the game. He wants to go in there and be as mentally tough as physically tough and he takes a lot of pride in that."

In that vein, Thomas was the first player mentioned in an April press conference by head coach Charlie Strong when asked about leaders emerging on the team, not just on defense.

Diggs certainly set quite an example in the areas of leadership and physical and mental toughness, so the natural evolution for the 5'10, 178-pound Thomas is to fully step into Diggs' former role and achieve the consistency that Diggs did as a senior.

Without having an older brother who played in the NFL, the opportunity to grow up around the Texas football offices, or even the ability to play much defensive back in high school, the developmental curve for the former Cove quarterback hasn't been as steep as that of Diggs.

Yet, even though Thomas lacked those advantages from which Diggs benefitted, the fact that Thomas tied for second on the team in special teams tackles and forced a fumble as a freshman before starting 10 games in 2013 speaks to his natural ability. On the great majority of plays, he was able to acclimate quickly in true DBU tradition and build on that into his junior season when he became a full-time starter and the team's No. 2 cornerback.

And so league writers saw enough to believe that he's the only player with All-Big 12 first team upside -- even ahead of running back Johnathan Gray due to stronger competition at the position. However, as with so many players who hope to emerge as seniors after filling smaller roles, the leadership Thomas will provide for the younger defensive backs will be important, but not as important as using his short memory and confidence to play more consistently.

That means avoiding the game-changing plays he gave up against UCLA and Kansas State and Iowa State, while continuing to show an all-around game as a physical tackler and playmaker. There were flashes in 2014, as when Thomas made a career-high nine tackles against UCLA to post a career-high 53 on the season. Or when he intercepted two passes against Kansas. Or broke up four passes against Texas Tech.

That's why the media believes in his ability to make the next step.

The leadership is there. The talent is there. The proven playmaking ability is there. So just let Thomas tell it in his own words again.

"I just need to play within the defense."