Joe Thomas, the first true freshman offensive lineman to ever see the field for a Barry Alvarez-coached Wisconsin team, will make his debut on defense when the Badgers face Auburn Dec. 31 in the Music City Bowl.
Thomas is listed as a backup to freshman Joe Monty at strongside defensive end on Wisconsin's official depth chart, but has spent the past two weeks of bowl practices working exclusively with the first-team defense.
Thomas spent the first weekend of bowl practices, Dec. 5-7, participating as an offensive lineman aside from a few drills. The following weekend, though, he began taking all of his reps on defense and participating in scrimmage sessions with the first unit. Initially, Wisconsin coaches said Thomas was working with the starters to give him the most reps possible and the best opportunity to get up to speed with the position. As the bowl approaches, however, it appears increasingly likely that Thomas will start.
"I haven't made that decision yet, but, you know, I'd like to have a big body out there when we do start the game so there's a good chance of that," defensive line coach John Palermo said. If Thomas does not start, Monty will make the first start of his career. "And I would say both of them will play in the game," Palermo said.
With Erasmus James taking a medical redshirt due to a hip injury suffered during fall camp, and Darius Jones out for the bowl game as he recovers from a knee injury suffered during Wisconsin's regular season finale with Iowa, the Badgers are left with only two experienced defensive ends as they head to Nashville. Jonathan Welsh has played in 35 games in his career, starting 10 this season, while Monty has played in 11 career games, recording nine tackles. Senior reserve defensive lineman Nick Cochart, who has started two games at defensive end this season, has practiced exclusively as a defensive tackle during bowl preparations. Senior end Traison Lewis has also received a lot of reps with the first and second units in bowl practices, but has played primarily on special teams throughout his career.
The paucity at end created an opening for Thomas, who starred at defensive end and offensive tackle at Brookfield (Wis.) Central High School.
"When I was being recruited they kind of left it up to me. During the recruiting process they are trying to do everything they can do to get you there," Thomas said with a smile. "They want you to obviously play where you are going to help the team but if you have a big preference they said I could go either way. I don't really have a preference and they thought that I could help the team out the most at left tackle."
Thomas spent the regular season as a top reserve offensive lineman and performed well in short yardage situations as a blocking tight end.
"At the start of the year (defensive end) is where we had as much depth as anything," Alvarez said. "I thought we were really in great shape with the number of guys we had and the quality depth. We didn't really feel like we needed him there. We had some question marks in the offensive line and that's where we thought it was the best place for him and gave him a chance to play."
"I would have liked to have had him; at least had a shot to work with him," Palermo said. "We made the decision he was going to be an offensive player, you live with those decisions and you move forward."
While the defensive line has been ravaged by injuries, the offensive line has been an image of health and junior left tackle Morgan Davis has enjoyed a very solid season, further creating the luxury of shifting Thomas in midstream. Thomas, though, is still listed as Davis' primary backup and will likely return to offense following the bowl game. In addition to the return of James and Jones next season, there is the emergence of Jamal Cooper, a freshman end who took a redshirt this season and emerged as a potential playmaker, winning scout team defensive player of the year, creating a potential logjam at defensive end.
"Depending on how I do in the bowl and the bowl practice is going to determine where I go," Thomas said. "But I think we have a lot of really good defensive linemen coming back and we are going to be pretty deep there so I think I might be moving back to offense after the bowl. I could see myself doing either side."
"We appreciate him coming over and helping us out getting ready for this bowl game, but as far as long term goes—I don't know," Palermo said. "I'd like for him to come out and play like an All-American and just stick him on defense forever. I just don't know what the future holds."
This is the second time this season that a reserve offensive lineman has been asked to change sides. Junior Kalvin Barrett had eight career starts at offensive guard in two seasons before moving to defensive tackle this year. His playing time and production have steadily increased and he is now an integral part of the defense. Late in the season, the team began moving starting tackle Jason Jefferson to end to allow Barrett to play inside and get more size on the field in short yardage situations.
"We are short bodies. I don't want Jon (Welsh) out there a whole lot in short yardage because he only weighs 228 pounds," Palermo said.