After a year of learning the ropes of Badger football, Joe Thomas is having both praise and lofty expectations thrown upon him as he prepares for his sophomore season. Thomas enters fall camp as the starting left tackle, displacing last year's starter Morgan Davis, who will now compete with fellow senior Mike Lorenz for the other tackle spot.
"I feel good about all three of those guys, and all three of them will play," head coach Barry Alvarez said of the Badgers' bevy of offensive tackles during his media day press conference, saving acclaim for Thomas.
"There aren't many true freshmen that can play right away," Alvarez said. "But the fact that we put [Thomas] in our jumbo tight end position last year and how well he played, he showed that he was ready. Really, he was ready at the end of last year. He has a chance to be one of the best linemen we've ever had. I certainly think he's ready this year."
Alvarez and offensive line coach Jim Hueber decided to accelerate Thomas' development because they sensed a maturity lacking in many younger players. Thomas' sheer athleticism also proved reason enough to find him a spot on the field.
"We've had a lot of good players come through here," Hueber said. "But he's the first guy we've really pushed as a true freshman to be involved rather than sit out the year and wait to take over as a sophomore. We've had some guys with great success that have done that when they took over as sophomores, but Joe seems the most ready. He's got a natural ability to play down and play under people and stay on his feet. That's a big thing for a young guy to be able to stay on his feet, that's really good. "
Thomas, however, doesn't want to mull over the expectations placed on him, instead preparing for the task of playing tackle full time while setting realistic goals for the season.
"You don't want to dwell on anything like that," Thomas said of the praise. "You don't want to dwell on individual accomplishment because we have a chance to be a heck of a team this year and my main goal this year is to hold down the left tackle spot."
Thomas has added 17 pounds from the spring to his 6-foot-8 frame, bulking up to a burly 300 pounds. At the same time the Brookfield, Wis., native has excelled in strength and conditioning drills, recently breaking three records for the tackle position including the hang clean (360 pounds), vertical (32.5 inches) and the 40-yard dash (4.93).
Thomas also participated on the Wisconsin track and field team throughout the indoor and outdoor season in shot put, placing eighth at both the Big Ten Indoor and Outdoor Championships and was a provisional qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"Track season was great," Thomas said. "It was kind of like a vacation in the middle of football season. It was really nice. Track to me is a sport where I can get out there and kind of forget about all the pressures that come along with Big Ten football."
Such versatility and athleticism allowed the Badgers to move Thomas to defensive end for the Music City Bowl, where Alvarez has hinted Thomas might see some spot duty in the upcoming season.
"My mom showed it to me in the paper," Thomas said of the Alvarez suggesting that he might play both ways. "I was kind of a little surprised, but if it's going to be something to help the team, I'd be happy to do it."
Thomas takes praise in stride
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