Thomas worth watching

Badgers' star left tackle continues to strive to be the best at his position

When Joe Thomas visits the University of Wisconsin football offices to watch video of upcoming opponents, he is keenly aware of his left-tackle peers.

Is there a left tackle on the video who is considered among the nation's best? Thomas wants to study his every move to see if he can pick up a little detail, some hint that he can perhaps incorporate into his own game.

Last summer, for instance, Thomas studied Virginia All-American D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who last season faced two of UW's 2005 opponents: North Carolina and Temple. He also spent a lot of time watching former Florida State All-American Alex Barron.

Thomas has his own style and he relies on UW offensive line coach Jim Hueber for work with technique. But honing in on players of Barron's and Ferguson's caliber has its benefits.

"I watch more how they play the game," said Thomas, a 6-foot-8, 303-pound junior. "I watch some technique but I think football is a game where there's not one way to do something. Sometimes I'll pick up something, just kind of the way they do just a small thing."

Lately, the left tackle front-and-center on Thomas' radar has been Auburn senior Marcus McNeil. As Thomas prepares for the Badgers' Capital One Bowl matchup with Auburn, studying McNeil is doubly beneficial. McNeil has been on most first-team All-American squads this year, giving Thomas another peer to analyze.

In addition, Thomas is expected to double shift a little Jan. 2, playing 10-15 snaps at defensive end. If that comes to fruition he could see plenty of McNeil, a 6-foot-9, 340-pound behemoth. Coincidentally, when Thomas started at defensive end in the 2003 Music City Bowl against Auburn—in his only previous collegiate playing time on defense—he also faced McNeil, then the Tigers' right tackle.

"I couldn't really move him very much and I felt like you had to run around the world to get around him, he was so big and his arms were so long," Thomas said.

Two years ago Thomas played the entire game on defense and played well, assisting on seven tackles while flipping from left to right defensive end. As was the case then, expect Thomas to line up to the strong side of the formation when he is on defense. This time around, however, Thomas is himself an All-American offensive lineman.

"I think the biggest thing is I don't want to hurt us offensively," defensive line coach John Palermo said. "If you look at us as a football team this year, we've been able to score quite a few points. I don't want to take them points off the board and say, ‘Okay, just because we got Joe in here we're going to be better on defense. He needs to play on offense as much as he can and then if we need him in spots (we can) steal him away for a few plays.

"I could live with us 31-28. As long as we win the game."

The Capital One Bowl will be a marquee game for Thomas on several levels. In addition to playing both ways, he will be on the same field with one of the few offensive lineman who has drawn more postseason praise. But Thomas said he is not out to see how he stacks up against McNeil.

"I don't worry about it too much but I know that every game that I play, there's a chance to show somebody something because until you're on the top, there's always somebody who's doubting you," Thomas said.

Thomas was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten choice, has been on several second-team All-American squads and was a first-team choice by Pro Football Weekly. The Associated Press, however, did not include him on any of its three squads.

One of Thomas' goals before the season was to be a first-team All-American.

"That was definitely something I wanted and I'm not satisfied at all," Thomas said. After being named a second-team All American by Sports Illustrated and the Walter Camp Foundation Thomas told himself he had to do something to be a first-team player next year.

"There's obviously something I need to work on," he said.

The big question for Badger fans, however, is whether this will be Thomas' last game at Wisconsin. Plenty of NFL scouts will be tuned in to the respective left tackles in Orlando. McNeil is projected to go in the top half of the first round, while Thomas would likely go somewhere between pick No. 20 and No. 40, according to Scout.com, if he left college early.

Thomas will have to make the decision by the middle of next month, but is currently still gathering information.

"There's a lot of things as far as how I'm rated amongst other offensive linemen and what I would be able to gain if I come back," Thomas said. "What would I lose if I came back? What are the benefits of it? I think once I get all the information, then I'm going to start thinking about it."

A two-time NCAA qualifier in the shot put, Thomas has said that he would like to reach the Olympics in track and field. That dream, however, was spurred more by his desire to reach the highest possible level of achievement than by a sense that it was feasible. Thomas said that track will have no bearing on his NFL-or-college decision.

"Track has always been something that's fun and I really like to do," Thomas said. "I'm the type of person that's never satisfied until I'm the best and I want to be the best in everything I do."

Plenty of left tackles would do well to study Thomas' actions.


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