As expected, Joe Thomas made the first start of his career in Wednesday's Music City Bowl. The Brookfield, Wis. native spent the entire regular season as a reserve offensive tackle, but shifted to defensive end against Auburn and played from start to finish, making seven tackles, including two for loss.
"I thought he held up pretty well," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "I think for a guy that just moved there, a true freshman that moved from offense to defense in about 12 practices, that is pretty amazing."
Though it was assumed he would rotate with freshman Joe Monty, Thomas was at strongside defensive end for all but a few plays in Wisconsin's base defense. Thomas also garnered a few snaps in definite passing situations, but typically left the field when the Badgers switched to their nickel or dime defense, with Alex Lewis and Jonathan Welsh playing end.
Wisconsin's coaches publicly stated that Thomas' starting role would be a game-time decision. Thomas, though, simply needed to become versed in the defense to earn playing time at a position decimated by injuries.
"Maybe the beginning of the second week of bowl practices I had a couple plays, they threw me over on defense to see what happens," Thomas said. "I played pretty well and I guess that weekend we had a couple days off and I came back and they said, ‘we want to play you on defense,' and see how you do and will just decide by game time if you understand it well enough.
"I was expecting to play the whole game in the base defense and maybe get a spare couple plays here and there, and that is pretty much what happened."
Monty, meanwhile, played sparingly, seeing action in the base defense in only two series.
Thomas' performance and ample playing time heightens the question for next season: where will he play? Both prior to and after the Music City Bowl, Thomas said he did not have a preference as to what side of the ball he ends up on in 2004 and beyond.
"I just want to be on the field," Thomas said, after the bowl game. "Wherever I'm needed is where I want to play."
In his auditions this season, Thomas showed that he could be a strong contributor on either side of the ball. Wisconsin, though, should have quality depth at both offensive tackle and defensive end in 2004, complicating Thomas' and the Badgers' coaching staff's decision.
The return of injured ends Erasmus James and Darius Jones and the continued growth and development of young players like Monty and Jamal Cooper could make end a crowded position in 2004. The caliber of Wisconsin's offensive line ebbed and flowed at times this season, but the unit generally played at a high level. Tackles Mike Lorenz and Morgan Davis fared well in their first seasons as starters and will be seniors in 2004. The team's top three defensive ends—Welsh, James and Jones—will also be seniors.
In theory, then, Thomas will be in line to start at his position of choice in 2005 and should be a strong contributor on either or both sides of the ball in 2004.
The depth and veteran nature of the defensive and offensive lines raises the possibility that the ultimate decision on Thomas could run a long course. Though there is little precedent for such a move, it is possible that Thomas could serve as a reserve at both positions, continuing to play as a blocking tight end while rotating in at defensive end. Such an arrangement would buy Wisconsin more time to consider Thomas' future, while maximizing his playing time in 2004.
"It would be fun, I don't know how plausible it would be but it'd be fun to try," Thomas said.
This could, however, retard his overall progress. Thomas has the talent to be a dominant player on either side of the ball, but he might not reach his potential if he dabbles for too long at both. Then again, after very little practice Thomas finished tied for third on the team in tackles in the Music City Bowl and played reasonably well against a strong offensive line.
Plenty of variables could play a role in where Thomas ends up. Wisconsin brought in seven freshman offensive lineman this fall—including Thomas—and has verbal commitments for 2004 from three likely ends—Nick Hayden (Hartland, Wis.), Mike Newkirk (Ladysmith, Wis.) and Jason Chapman (Bedford, Ohio). How well the other young players progress could influence where Thomas would receive the most meaningful playing time. The team will almost undoubtedly continue to start Lorenz and Davis at the offensive tackle spots next season, but if Thomas develops as many expect, he could push the veterans for playing time. How strongly James and Jones return from injury will also have a bearing on the decision, which will have a ripple effect at both positions.
If Thomas plays offensive line, very little will change from 2003 to 2004—Thomas would still play as the sixth lineman in short yardage sets, while a healthy Erasmus James would return to a starting role. Jones would join Kalvin Barrett as a top reserve on the defensive line. Cooper, meanwhile, is expected to take on Alex Lewis' role as a designated pass rusher in nickel and dime sets while Monty and freshman Justin Ostrowski, who shifted from end to tackle during the season, would also fill in along the front four.
If Thomas plays defense it will open up the depth chart at left tackle and would create an opportunity for a player like freshman Danny Kaye to emerge in the sixth-lineman role. Thomas' move to defensive end would limit Monty's snaps and all but guarantee that the incoming freshmen would redshirt.
"It remains to be seen," Thomas said of his likely position. "We'll see what happens in the offseason."