Who to watch in spring: Duke Thomas

Editor's note: This is the second part of a weeklong series taking a closer look at Texas players worth watching when the Longhorns begin spring practices in three weeks.

The right word might be trust. Duke Thomas earned a lot of trust in 2013.

It started around this time last season, when the then-sophomore was so electric in spring practices that Texas coaches talked seriously about letting him become a two-way player.

He lined up at wide receiver in the spring game and caught three passes. He could return kicks, too. Thomas had been on campus less than a year and he was already emerging as one of Texas’ most promising underclassmen.

That trust only grew in fall camp, to the point where Duane Akina was so confident in Thomas’ ability to become a starter he moved Quandre Diggs into a nickel role. Texas had to get Thomas on the field, and one of the nation’s best DB coaches believed he was ready.

For the most part, he was. Thomas didn’t get exposed in his first year as a starter. He was solid, sometimes great. He led the Longhorns with three interceptions. He started 10 games, notched 50 tackles, five pass breakups and 17 returns.

Two of those picks came in critical victories over Oklahoma and Texas Tech. And Thomas was humbled a time or two, most notably when Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage beat him and raced 97 yards for a touchdown.

He put in a year of starting time. He learned and he got better. What’s he capable of as a junior?

Texas needs Thomas to take the next step, especially with Carrington Byndom gone and Sheroid Evans on the mend from a torn ACL. Diggs is back for his final season and brings the kind of leadership and swagger this secondary needs.

Thomas, meanwhile, has to bring his best and impress new position coaches Vance Bedford and Chris Vaughn.

He’s got to show the same stuff he displayed last spring and again in fall camp, the kind of talent that makes sidelining him impossible. But staying on the field won’t be enough, not if this Texas defense wants to keep up in a year when every Big 12 school is seemingly loaded at receiver.

In this league, the cornerback spot can become a real advantage for Texas in 2014. But that’s going to depend on just how much better Thomas can get this spring and beyond.