Thomas Receives Right Answers

FAYETTEVILLE -- Joe Thomas couldn't help but be nervous as he waited last week for answers to two very different questions.

The Wisconsin offensive tackle had a pretty good idea what the answer to his first question would be. When he asked his girlfriend of a year and a half to marry him Wednesday night, two days after his 22nd birthday, he figured she'd say yes.

But there was no guarantee the following day that Thomas would win the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman. His nerves were going crazy -- until he got the other answer he had been hoping for.

"Basically, it was a very exciting week. A lot of emotions are running through your body when you get engaged and then the next day you win the Outland Trophy," Thomas said. "I've never been so nervous two days in a row."

But before Thomas walks down the aisle and heads to the NFL as a projected top three draft pick, the senior will face No. 12 Arkansas (10-3) in the Capital One Bowl at noon Jan. 1 in Orlando.

For the most part, the 6-foot-8, 313-pound Thomas has been an immmovable object for the No. 6 Badgers (11-1) this season. And it should be a challenge for either of the Razorbacks' starting defensive ends -- junior Jamaal Anderson and sophomore Antwain Robinson -- to get around the massive left tackle.

"I don't know who I'm going to be facing," Thomas said. "I think it's going to be Arkansas' decision (on) who they put on me."

But when you're a quarterback who has an Outland Trophy winner who's the size of a small boat blocking for you, it doesn't really matter which defensive end tries to blitz.

"For myself dropping back, I know that's something that I never have to worry about," Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco said. "It never enters my mind, and that's great to have as a quarterback."

For as good as Wisconsin's offensive linemen have been traditionally, Thomas is the first one to win the Outland Trophy. He earned even more accolades following his dominant senior season, the latest coming Tuesday when he was named to the Associated Press' All-America first team.

Thomas didn't start playing on the offensive line until midway through his senior season in high school, but he appears to be a fast learner. One NFL mock draft says the left tackle is a better all-around player than former Virginia offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the fourth pick by the New York Jets in the last NFL Draft.

"He's definitely the best (offensive lineman) that I've seen since I've been here," Stocco said of Thomas. "There has been a lot of great ones that have come through here, but I don't think any of them won an Outland Trophy or anything like that."

When Thomas makes his final collegiate start in the Capital One Bowl, it will come coincidentally in the same game and city where he suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury a year ago.

Thomas tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Wisconsin's 24-10 win over Auburn in last year's Capital One Bowl. The All-American suffered the injury midway through the third quarter when he switched over to play defensive end to help the Badgers' injury-plagued front line.

Thomas didn't return to practice until August. In the meantime, he spoke with former Wisconsin wide receiver Lee Evans and several other teammates who had torn their ACLs about how their rehabilitation went, how long their recovery lasted and how they felt when they finally stepped back on the field.

It didn't take Thomas much time at all to regain his dominant form, evident by the way he pushes defensive ends away as if they're simply annoyances.

"I think (the rehab) was a challenge, but it wasn't any different than the challenge you face going through spring practice and winter conditioning," Thomas said.

"I think it was different, and it gave me a chance to work on some other things to get myself better as a football player as far as dedicating myself in the weight room, being able to lift weights on your upper body and not having to worry about going out to practice in the afternoon."

He doesn't have to worry about asking for his girlfriend's hand in marriage, either. That's a relief.

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