Thomas eager for two-way challenge

All-American offensive lineman preparing to line up at defensive end; still pondering draft status

ORLANDO, Fla. — Talk about a challenge. Left tackle Joe Thomas will be expected to keep some of the fastest defensive ends the Badgers have seen all season out of the backfield when Wisconsin takes on Auburn next Monday.

But that's not all. When the Tigers go on offense, he may be saddled with the job of doing the exact opposite—lining up on defense and trying to get to chase down the ball carrier.

Thomas, who started at defensive end against Auburn in the Music City Bowl two years ago, may get a chance to line up against the Tiger offense again in this year's Capital One Bowl.

"During the season, I've been telling [defensive coordinator Bret Bielema] and [defensive line] coach [John] Palermo about maybe putting me in some third downs, especially when we were hurting for guys, before we had some guys step up," Thomas said. "The bowl practice gave us a chance to practice it and refresh my memory from what it was like my freshman year. It was a perfect opportunity."

"What his role will be will be very limited [on defense]," offensive line coach Jim Hueber said. "They know what they want to do with him. He's done it before."

For Thomas, who assisted on seven tackles against the Tigers in the Music City Bowl, playing defensive end is nothing new.

Although he has spent most of his games on the offensive line at Wisconsin, he was a first-team all-state defensive end and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 after compiling 85 tackles and 12 sacks as a senior at Brookfield (Wis.) Central High School.

He said the transition from offensive line to defensive line is easier than trying to switch the other way around.

"There's so many intricacies and things to learn on offense—you have to read the defense," Thomas said. "When you're playing defense, you really just got to read the man in front of you and then go run at the ball."

As easy as that sounds, getting to the ball, especially when Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox has it, will not be an easy task. The Tigers' offensive line has given up just 17 sacks all season. Thomas, though, is expected to get his snaps primarily on run downs, in an effort to quell tailback Kenny Irons, who has 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing this season.

Fatigue will also be a concern for Thomas, who will be expected to maintain his always-stout effort on the offensive line.

"I'm expecting to play maybe 10 or 15 snaps [at defensive end]," Thomas said. "It's really just going to depend [on] how I feel in the game, how tired I am. I'm not going to take any more snaps that would be detrimental to my offense."

Hueber said he will not let fatigue become a factor.

"He's really a good athlete, he's in shape," Hueber said. "If he has to [take a breather on offense] we won't play him on defense."

Saying that he will not allow Thomas to play if he is tired is one thing, but dragging Thomas—who would play every down on both sides of the ball if he could—off the field might be another task.

"I think they'll be able to notice [if I'm tired]. I would tell them if I got tired," Thomas said. "But I'm also the type of guy who doesn't like to take himself off the field."

Draft decision yet to be made

Amidst preparing for the game on both offense and defense, Thomas continues to field questions regarding whether or not he will enter the NFL draft following this, his junior year.

"At the beginning of the year I wanted to put myself in this situation by the year that I had," Thomas said. "To be able to do that is kind of achieving one of the goals that I had."

He also said that it is a decision that will be made after the Capital One Bowl is over.

"It's a process…and after the final game I'm going to sit down with my family and make a decision that's going to be the best for me," Thomas said.

Thomas is still collecting information regarding where experts predict he will go in the draft and will compare that with the benefits of coming back to UW for his senior year before making his final decision.

"There's a number of things … there are a lot of things that go with a decision like that too," he said. "I'm really enjoying going through the process."

As for those who are saying he should not play on defense and risk injuring himself, Thomas is not buying that argument.

"I hope they're not saying that. I'm not worried about that," Thomas said. "I think I've kind of made a name for myself on offense … I'm not going to do anything on defense that's going to detract from my offense."

That's good news to Thomas' fellow offensive linemen, who will have to deal with a strong Auburn defensive line that will be looking to wreak havoc in the Badger backfield.

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