The Texas Longhorns will look a little bit different than expected defensively on Saturday against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, as defensive coordinator Vance Bedford revealed on Wednesday that senior Duke Thomas will start at nickel back.
Long expected to play at the boundary or field position this season, Thomas was a somewhat surprising addition to the depth chart at nickel back on Monday listed as a co-starter with redshirt freshman John Bonney, who held down that position throughout the spring.
Listed at 178 pounds, Thomas gives up two inches and 10 pounds to Bonney, in addition to a significant amount of reach due to his shorter arms. So how Thomas is able to deal with the physical demands of the position remains a concern since he hasn't played there before and will at some point have to beat blocks on wide receiver screens and set the edge against runs headed towards the field side.
On Monday, Thomas at least had the right things to say about his move.
"I feel like I am comfortable there," Thoms said. "I like being in that physical position. You get a lot more action there. And I feel like I can definitely be effective."
Why exactly is Thomas playing further inside than normal? The guess is that the coaches want to match him up on the Notre Dame slot receiver. On the depth chart, that's senior Chris Brown, but senior Amir Carlisle may actually end up spending more time inside, even though he's listed as the flanker. Texas product Torii Hunter, Jr., now a junior, will also see time there, as he's listed as a co-starter with Carlisle.
With Thomas working at the nickel spot, Bonney will instead play an outside corner position, likely on the field side, as he sees his first college action, while sophomore Antwuan Davis will hold down the other spot. Winning the starting job was no small accomplishment for the 5'11, 194-pound Davis, as he not only had to fight off junior Bryson Echols, but also the three talented freshmen cornerbacks -- Davante Davis, Kris Boyd, and Holton Hill.
Known for his speed and strength, Davis experienced some struggles transitioning to the college game over the last two seasons and may still need to work on his ability to flip his hips in coverage, but he'll have the first opportunity to prove on the field that all the competition has made him a better player. All the tools are certainly there -- Rivals ranked the Bastrop product as the No. 9 cornerback nationally in the 2013 class.
If the Texas staff was any less renowned or experienced, starting Davis for the first time while playing Thomas out of position might seem like a bit of a risk, but there's no question that head coach Charlie Strong and his staff know what they're doing in the defensive backfield.
Now the players just have to prove them right.