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Wisconsin lineman Thomas to play both ways

12/29/2005 - Wisconsin Badgers

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."