Bloomington, Ind. – There's still plenty position and personnel matters to sort out for the IU coaching staff before the season kicks off in September, but there's one newcomer the staff knows will be a contributor this fall.
The 6-2, 192-pound freshman from Woodstock, Ga., is versatile defender who has cracked the two-deep at strong safety this spring and has proven to be a big playmaker from his defensive backfield position. While Indiana has plenty of veterans at safety with Will Meyers, Troy Grosfield (who is out this spring with a knee injury), Eric McClurg and Aaron Mitchell, Thomas has been forcing the issue with his play this spring.
"Probably the biggest surprise of the spring is Austin Thomas," said co-defensive coordinator Joe Palcic. "He is a guy that is going to see a lot of playing time. We'll get him on the field, whether it's at safety or linebacker. Maybe he'll play both."
Indiana's new defensive scheme – which features a third safety sliding down to an outside linebacker position – will provide Thomas with additional opportunities for playing time this fall. That scheme change has also allowed the IU defense to play faster than it did a year ago, something Thomas has noticed.
"We're flying around," Thomas said. "I think our coaches are doing a great job of finding people's strengths and adjusting our schemes to them."
Thomas says the added speed on the field is obvious. Not only does the fifth defensive back provide a lift in that area, but the presence of redshirt freshmen defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Neal Jones on the two-deep also gives the unit a couple of other outstanding athletes on the defensive line who can get after the quarterback.
"I came up for the spring game last year, even though I wasn't at school yet," Thomas said. "But I can already notice the difference in the defense's speed."
IU's move to put a third safety at outside linebacker isn't only about getting faster, but it's also an effort to get its 11 best players on the field. The Hoosiers have an abundance of quality safeties on its roster, with Grosfield and Meyers each having started nine games a year ago, while Mitchell has seven career starts as well.
Despite so many veterans returning, Thomas is someone who has impressed the staff so much this spring with his ability to drop back into coverage as well as step up and stop the run that he'll be on the field as well. It's a good feeling for the Sequoyah H.S. graduate, who spent the 2005 season on the scout team while redshirting.
"I feel a lot more involved this spring than last year as a redshirt," Thomas said.
Thomas is also much more comfortable with his surroundings than he was when he first arrived on the Bloomington campus last fall.
"Adjusting was a little difficult," Thomas said. "The first couple of days of camp were a little rough last year, being so far from home. But the football family here reminds me a lot of back home, so it was pretty easy after I got through camp."
Thomas has made the adjustment on the field as well. Palcic said he heard good things about Thomas' play a year ago on the scout team, and he's been able carry that over to the spring.
"We heard good things about him, but until you throw him into the fire and see how they are going to react you don't know for sure," Palcic said. "But he's responded."
Thomas Forcing the Issue
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