He was pretty much an afterthought in the Texas Longhorns' 2007 recruiting class. In a group that included elite national recruits like Tray Allen and John Chiles, it was easy to overlook the short playmaker from the Golden Triangle who arrived on campus without a true position.
That didn't stop Earl Thomas from becoming a star and making an impact still felt today on the 40 Acres. The arrival of Will Muschamp as the Longhorns' defensive coordinator in the spring of 2008 provided a then-redshirt freshman the biggest opportunity he needed to make a name for himself.
His ascension to being an All-American and a first round NFL draft choice has been well documented, but it all started that first spring under Muschamp. Thomas developed such a reputation for making plays in practice that his teammates viewed his feats on Saturday afternoons as fairly routine.
“They'd say, 'Oh, that's just Earl making a play,'” Thomas said. “I was just excited to be out there. Any time it's practice it's always a game situation.”
He earned Freshman All-American honors in 2008, set the school's single-season interceptions record with eight in 2009, was a consensus first-team All-American that same season and was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.
As we continue our rebranded Catching Up series Thomas, now a two-time All-Pro with the Seattle Seahawks who has now twice been named one of the top-100 players in the NFL by his peers, gives his thoughts on his pro career, his time in Austin, and the current state of the Longhorns.
Horns247: First off, how's the offseason going and what are doing to get ready for what's hopefully another big year for you and the Seahawks?
Earl Thomas: [I'm] just trying to fine-tune some things that I didn't do well the previous season. I think the offseason is the biggest time when players can grow and separate themselves from other players around the league. It's a grind and it's a sacrifice and I definitely take pride in my craft. I'm definitely trying to be the best at my position.
Horns247: What was the biggest challenge for you making the transition from the college game to the pro game?
ET: I think the quarterbacks were the biggest obstacle I had to overcome. I was so aggressive coming out of college and I switched to another defensive scheme. I was so used to playing quarters coverage, if you want to call it that. Now we're playing single-safety high and the quarterbacks know that I'm aggressive and they'll give me pump fakes. I used to always break on the first move. It's a different speed when you're talking about the transition from college to the NFL.
Horns247: You've always been a confident guy, but how do you balance confidence and the need to let your natural ability carry you all while playing within the scheme?
ET: Confidence is everything with me. I'm not very tall in stature, but I thank God that he blessed me with a bigger body. I'm from the country and guys who are tough are always going to stand out. I think my confidence makes me seem like I'm 6-4. Then when you add a determined, driven, tough, situational football player everything ties into that. When you're hungry and you're always looking to get that edge you're going to be one of the best.
Horns247: You really took off that first spring under Coach Muschamp, but was there anything specifically that made the difference for you?
ET: One thing was the mentality I had. I just wanted my opportunity to get a shot. I came to the University of Texas always making plays, but there were guys who are five-stars guy that they believed in because of their size and it was tough for me to get on the grass. So when I got the opportunity I took full advantage of it. I gave it everything I had and every time I got a chance I'd pick everybody's brain I did. It all paid off.
Horns247: How big of an impact was Duane Akina on your career and in what ways did he help you the most become the player you are today?
ET: I think the biggest thing was he let me be me. He just let me play. He didn't try to critique my game and he let me trust my God-given ability. I tell my coach now, Coach [Pete] Carroll, that you can't put me in a box and say that I'm just playing man – I think I bring a lot to the table. I'm a DB and to me that means I can play every position. You can use me at more than one position. [Akina] gave me the confidence and believed in me, and when your coach and your teammates are behind you it plays a big role as well.
Horns247: Is there anyone else you can say who had a significant impact with helping make you the player you've become?
ET: Definitely Coach Muschamp. He's right up there with Coach Akina, and even Coach Akina has been here since I have and I didn't get that opportunity the first go-around. Coach Muschamp saw it in me when nobody else saw it. We still keep in close contact to this day. He's one of best defensive coordinators I've ever played for and if I got a chance to play for him again in the league one day I'd love the opportunity.
Horns247: On the field you were 2-0 against Oklahoma, so what is it that separates the teams at Texas that have success and Oklahoma from those that don't?
ET: I didn't play when weren't successful against them, so I couldn't tell you about that. It just seems like the connection with your teammates on and off the field transitions to playing well. I know us in the secondary were a close and tight-knit group. When I got to the league that's the one thing I missed the most was that brotherhood. We'd just hang out, talk about girls – you know how us DBs are – but that bond is something I'll never forget.
Horns247: Being on the winning side in that game twice, can you describe what it's like to win that game knowing everything that it means if you do win it?
ET: My mindset was different than most guys. When I came to the University of Texas I didn't know that much about the tradition of Texas or Oklahoma. I was just happy to be going to college. I didn't realize the magnitude of that game until after I was in college. I approached the OU game like I had to be on top of things just like any other game. It was usually a fist fight. You have the fair in the background and there's all kinds of distractions, but I always looked at it as a great opportunity. I was focused on getting to the next level so I didn't want to put any bad tape out there. I just wanted to be the best playmaker and communicator I could be.
Horns247: When you came to Texas out of high school where did the Texas coaches project you to play?
ET: I came in as an athlete and I played mostly running back in high school. They decided to put me at corner. They said I had some great film at corner but they thought my body wasn't physically ready. They guys I came in with, most of them got to play early and avoided that redshirt. I watched from the sidelines, but the good thing was I got to sit back, watch it and view it from a different angle. I learned a lot and I [took redshirting] with a grain of salt. I'm glad everything happened the way it did.
Horns247: You're seeing a lot of guys coming out of Texas who can play both safety and corner, but what does it entail at that level to be able to play multiple positions?
ET: A lot of people don't know that I actually play the nickel position. We don't bring in the nickel package, they just keep me down there to cover the [slot] receiver. God blessed me with great versatility and I try to take advantage of that. Speed kills and I try to show that every time I step on the field.
Horns247: You guys made the playoffs and won the Wild Card game with Russell Wilson, a rookie quarterback leading the way last season. When did you feel you had something special going on with him at quarterback?
ET: Russell is kind of a different player in practice than in games. It's hard on him in practice because we've got such a good secondary that we make it hard on him. When he gets to the game he plays turned up and he's a totally different player. He's a great player and he leads by example. That's the best example of a leader. I don't want some guy who's all rah-rah and doesn't show up in the game. Just show me what you can do and that's enough for me. He's been gradually coming on and we've been they same way. We've been going up with him and I'm happy he's our quarterback.
Horns247: Based on what you've seen, and in your opinion, does this Texas team have what it takes to get back to playing at a championship level?
ET: I definitely think so, especially defensively. I think if we find a stable quarterback and get our running game back we'll be fine. We have the greatest coaches in the world starting with Coach Akina and Coach Mack Brown. Everything is in place. The strength coaches are doing great job with them. I think we'll be fine, we'll just have to see what happens.