For the last year, the prognosis for the Texas Longhorns to have a senior taken in the 2016 NFL Draft has not been positive, but after defensive back Duke Thomas showed the ability to play multiple positions last fall and ran well at the Texas Pro Day in March, there's a chance that he could hear his name called on Saturday.
The 5'10, 178-pounder played quarterback in high school at Copperas Cove, but was a good enough athlete to earn a consensus four-star rating and classification as the No. 14 athlete in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Thomas always looked headed for the defensive side of the ball, but did play some wide receiver in the spring of 2013 due to depth issues.
Under former defensive backs coach Duane Akina, Thomas adjusted quickly to his switch to defense and went on to play in all 51 games in his career, including 35 starts. As a freshman, he was a part-time player in a talented secondary and mostly made his mark on special teams. A move into the starting lineup the next season resulted in a team-high three interceptions, a number that he matched in 2014, when he also led the team with 10 pass break ups.
Prior to the 2015 season, Thomas made the surprising move to nickel back, but managed to turn in a strong seasons with 58 tackles (third on the team), five passes defensed, three tackles for loss, and one interception. He featured heavily as a blitzer in the aggressive defensive game plan against Oklahoma, spent some time at safety, and also played some dime linebacker for Texas.
At the Texas Pro Day, Thomas helped pique the interest of scouts by running a 40-yard dash that was timed as low as 4.37 seconds.
Thomas drew praise from the coaching staff last season for his leadership ability after emerging as a vocal presence in his position room and on the field, helping acclimate four freshman cornerbacks and share his knowledge of head coach Charlie Strong's scheme.
Between the whistles, he was a physical tackler and significantly cut down on the mental mistakes that caused him to give up so many big plays in previous seasons at inopportune times.
Based on his testing at the Texas Pro Day, Thomas also has ideal speed for the cornerback position in the NFL and doesn't have to worry about opposing wide receivers running past him on a consistent basis. He used that speed to good effect in planting and driving on the football in coverage and in recovering when he did get beat.
Because he played multiple positions as a senior, he was able to show off his versatility to scouts in a way that hadn't been possible in his previous three seasons at Texas.
At 5'10, Thomas doesn't have ideal height for the position and has a thin, lean build that is not ideal for adding weight in the NFL. As a result of his build, his willingness to be physical wasn't enough to help him deal with some of the demands of the nickel position, especially when asked to defeat bigger blockers on the perimeter.
Thomas helped his stock as a senior and displayed some attributes like speed, versatility, physicality, and maturity that will make him an intriguing option for NFL teams. However, it will be difficult for him to overcome his physical deficiencies in the NFL because the step up in competition level requires a more prototypical build. His lack of height won't allow him to play the field corner position and he's probably not strong enough to stick at the nickel. Because of those issues, he may get a chance to play safety, but doesn't have a prototypical NFL build for that position, either.
Draft projection -- UDFA
It's possible that NFL teams like Thomas more than NFL Draft analysts because teams have deeper resources to scout more players and uncover relatively overlooked players like the former Texas defensive back. With that being said, rankings like the No. 474 slotting of Thomas by CBSSports.com shows just how far he is from being considered a likely candidate to get drafted. Unless one team really falls in love with him, he'll have to make a roster the hard way.