Wisconsin lineman Thomas to play both ways

Updated: December 29, 2005, 9:03 AM ET
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Joe Thomas will be hard to miss in the Capital One Bowl. Just look for the 6-foot-8, 303-pound guy protecting Wisconsin's quarterback one moment and trying to pound Auburn's passer the next.

Thomas will be pulling double duty in Monday's game, thanks to injuries on the 21st-ranked Badgers' defensive line.

"It reminds you of the high school days and your middle school days when you're playing both ways," the Lombardi Award semifinalist said. "That was the climax of playing fun football. There was nothing on the line, you just went out and played for fun.

"That's kind of how it is playing on defense. Just go out and find the ball and have fun with it.

Defensive coordinator Bret Bielema isn't sure how much Thomas will play on defense. But the junior All-Big Ten tackle fared well in his lone defensive stint as a freshman against, coincidentally, Auburn, in the Music City Bowl in 2003, making seven tackles.

"He's a guy that didn't hesitate at all, just jumped right into the challenge and looked forward to the opportunity," Bielema said. "He's definitely a big guy that can move around and do good things."

The Badgers have lost ends Jamal Cooper and Matt Shaughnessy to season-ending injuries. Thomas began working on defense after the regular-season finale at Hawaii, when freshmen end Travis Beckum injured a knee at a position already thin.

Asked if he's been around other big offensive linemen who were capable of playing defensive end, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said, "I don't know any."

"I think Joe Thomas could choose where he wants to be an All-American," Alvarez said. "He's a natural, whether it be blocking someone or coming up onto a linebacker or playing defense.

"Two years ago against Auburn, he practiced a handful of plays before the game and went in and played very well. That tells you just a bit about his ability."

Back then, though, Thomas was a backup offensive tackle pressed into defensive duties by injuries. Now he's a star player who's considering a jump to the NFL after the season.

Thomas said his evaluation by league officials indicated he was projected as a first-round pick, but said he won't make up his mind until after Monday's game.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I'll have plenty of information, have a full scope of where I'm able to go and how things will turn out," he said.

In the meantime, he expects to play at least a few plays on the opposite side of the ball against the Tigers.

"I have no idea how many snaps I'm going to play or when I'm going to play, but I've been practicing out there to get guys a little break and get somebody else chasing after the quarterback and chasing after the running back," said Thomas, who also set the school indoor record in the shot put with the track team. "I'm really looking forward to it."

His move could potentially create a gargantuan matchup, between Cope and Auburn's 6-9, 338-pound left tackle Marcus McNeill.

McNeill said he remembered playing against Thomas in the Music City Bowl. But even he was a little intrigued by someone of his own physical stature playing end.

"That'll be pretty interesting, left tackle against left tackle," the Outland Trophy finalist said. I might have to get over there at defensive end myself and try to get back at him if he beats me."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press