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Duke Thomas could make impact on offense for 2013 'Horns

A cameo on offense in the spring game could herald big plays to come this fall.

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Duke Thomas after returning a kick in the Orange-White game
Duke Thomas after returning a kick in the Orange-White game

Sophomore athlete Duke Thomas is a natural.

The 5-11, 175-pound Copperas Cove product played quarterback in high school and did enough to convince Texas Longhorns defensive back coach Duane Akina that he could play cornerback with his work in a single summer camp, events that are crucial for the coaching staff in the evaluation of prospects who will end up at positions they didn't play in high school.

When Thomas showed up at the Offense-Defense Bowl last year before enrolling early at Texas, he spent some of his time on defense, including one day of practice before playing cornerback in the game, recording an interception, a fumble recovery, and several tackles.

Like a natural.

During the Orange-White game at the end of March, Thomas helped out on offense with the suspension to fellow sophomore Cayleb Jones and the hamstring injury to Jaxon Shipley, catching three passes for 27 yards.

On special teams, he returned two kickoffs for 65 yards and flashed some of the game-breaking speed that helped him run for more than 2,500 yards and 31 touchdowns in his final two seasons at the high school level.

Head coach Mack Brown was asked about Thomas following the spring-ending scrimmage:

He has only been over there for three days, and he can really catch. You can see he hadn't handled the ball much. We will have to work on that, but we will really talk about the ability to utilize his speed. He did a really good job at receiver, and he is fighting Sheroid Evans for the other corner position. We feel really good about Duke. We will just have to look at it and probably play him both ways in the fall. We have got more depth right now in the secondary than we do at wide receiver. We have to continue to increase our speed at wide receiver.

From Brown's comments, it sounds like the odds are high that Thomas will spend at least some time at wide receiver in the fall, where he would compete with incoming true freshman Jacorey Warrick for time at slot receiver, and could even be a player in the mix to receive some carries in the perimeter run game, where it seems like his speed and escapability could make him highly effective.

As Brown mentioned, though, ball security will be a key for the Killeen-area product, who was rather loose with the ball and put the ball on the ground twice during the game, though neither was a fumble.

However, since he does have experience on offense, it's not like he's never been taught ball security -- he just needs a refresher course after only spending three days there.

And that's what was impressive about Thomas' performance in the Orange-White game. His average of nine yards per catch is hardly astounding, but he looked comfortable catching the ball and running the handful of routes that he knew and he wasn't just out there taking up space. He made himself a legitimate target.

After only three days.

Given five times that amount of practice time next fall during camp, aided by some time at receiver during the all-important summer workouts? Well, that could be something.

There was some talk coming out of high school that Thomas could get a chance at wide receiver to start -- Rivals listed him as an athlete -- but it didn't come to fruition until his second spring on campus after enrolling early in 2012.

Brown saw an opportunity to see what Thomas could do at wide receiver and jumped at the chance as the Texas offense seeks to put more speed on the field.

I thought it was a great opportunity to put him [Duke] over there and look at it, because he did such a great job at Copperas Cove [High School] with the ball in his hands. I thought it would be fun to watch him and see what he could do. He's really smart. He works really hard. He's fighting for a backup spot [in the secondary], so I wanted to see if he could have a chance to step in and maybe gain a spot as a starter at receive.

Thomas is also really fast. So, he's fast, smart, and a hard worker, attributes that combine to allow him to be a quick learner. Yeah, basically a natural.

Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite had a few more descriptives to throw into the mix:

We took a look at Duke this past week. He's a guy from Copperas Cove that has tremendous ball skills and competitive toughness. He reminds me a lot of Quandre [Diggs] as far as just having that feel of a player. He loves football. He's a competitor and I'm excited to have a guy like that on offense.

Fast, smart, a hard worker with tremendous ball skills and competitive toughness, as well as possessing a love for football.

The ingredients of a true contributor.

Senior wide receiver Mike Davis agrees with the general assessment of Thomas as a quick learner, too:

He picked it up instantly when he first walked in the room. He knew some of our stuff and he got it down pretty fast. Learning offense isn't that hard, since we are working on the basic stuff to learn the tempo.

Thing is. defensive coordinator Manny Diaz isn't so ready to give him up, noting that the 'Horns need to "make sure we use him in the best way possible."

Right now, it looks like that will be splitting some time on offense and defense in the fall and giving him a chance to show off the first-step explosiveness and ability to juke defenders that made it hard to project him as a high school prospect on the defensive side of the ball, but provided ample evidence of his ability with the ball in his hands.

It will be a tough task for Thomas to balance the demands of both positions, but with suspensions likely looming for both Kendall Sanders and Cayleb Jones to start the season, Texas will need some experienced bodies at the position and it looks like the former high school quarterback can step into that role with a steep learning curve.

He is a natural, after all.