LONGHORN FOR LIFE
A son of the Lone-Star State from the aptly named Orange, Texas and one of the mostly highly sought after defensive back recruits in the country, one would believe it was pre-destined that Earl Thomas III would end up at the University of Texas.
But Earl has always been one to go against the grain, and for a while, he didn’t think UT was a fit for him. Instead, Earl was thinking of staying in the Gulf region and heading East to Baton Rouge and LSU.
Nevertheless, ETIII decided to give Austin a chance, and after a visit to hang out with former West Orange teammate Deon Beasley at Texas, Earl was hooked.
“I liked it a lot more than I thought I would,” he said. “I ended up committing right after that.”
But despite being a four-sport star at West Orange and a four-star recruit according to Scout.com and Rivals.com, questions about Earl’s ultimate ceiling persisted. Many saw ETIII, at 5-10, 174 lbs, as too small to play safety.
Scout.com’s analysts saw him as a cornerback and despite finishing his high school career with 112 tackles, 11 interceptions and four touchdowns as a return man while piling up nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards, he was ranked just the 19th best player in Texas for the Class of 2007.
In his first college season at Texas, Earl still faced some of the questions that followed him as a recruit.
Coaches at UT liked him as a cornerback but decided that he wasn’t physically ready. While several other freshmen saw the field immediately, ET was redshirted and forced to watch from the sidelines. But he would later admit that the decision couldn’t have worked out better.
“I came in as an athlete and I played mostly running back in high school. They decided to put me at corner,” Earl said. “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.”
ETIII took the season to bulk up and adapt to his newfound role as a full-time defensive back. By the end of his college career he left Austin to enter the draft at 208 pounds—34 pounds heavier than when he entered.
As he worked on both his mental and physical skills, Texas coaches began to take notice. He credited Will Muschamp, the UT defensive coordinator at the time and now the head coach at Florida, for seeing in him what few others saw.
Even more so than Muschamp, ET’s relationship with defensive backs coach Duane Akina set him up for success in Austin.
Even to this day, he draws from the faith instilled in him by Akina at UT.
“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.”
After spending his first season on the sideline, Earl wasted little time making an impact. He earned his first shot as a starting safety in Game 1 of 2008, his redshirt freshman season.
In his debut against Florida Atlantic, ET led all UT defensive backs with five tackles, tipped a pass that was intercepted, broke up two passes, forced a fumble and blocked a punt, which his teammates turned into a touchdown.
That first game wasn’t all smooth sailing, as FAU’s only touchdown came right in front of ET. However, he took that first contest as a growth experience.
“Any time you get a big play thrown at you, you just have to forget about it and go to the next play. That’s what I tried to do,” Earl said after Texas’ 52-10 win over FAU. “We were just kind of getting the feel of it in our first game. Just kind of getting our feet wet.”
ETIII and his young teammates did just that. Texas outscored its first four opponents by an average of almost 40 points, with the defense giving up no more than 13 points in a game during that span.
After the first month of the season the Longhorns were acclimated to the environment and ready to dive into conference play. ET recorded just two tackles but also broke up two passes in his Big 12 debut as Texas rolled to a 38-14 win on the road against Colorado. But that game set Earl up for his true coming out party, in the biggest game of his young career.
The week after their big win at Colorado, Texas met archrival Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout. The Horns entered the game ranked No. 5, while Oklahoma came in at No. 1 in the nation with eventual Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford at quarterback.
Though the Red River Rivalry — in which Earl and his Longhorns went 2-0 during his college career — is one of the most highly anticipated in college football each year, Earl admitted he didn’t know much about it before he became a Longhorn. However, it didn’t take long for him to understand the conflict between the two teams.
“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.”
ET was that and then some in his first Red River Shootout. ET logged a trio of tackles, forced a fumble and intercepted Bradford twice, including once on the final play of the game. That 45-35 victory sent Texas to No. 1 in the polls, but it was just the start of a brutal four-week stretch that featured four teams ranked in the top 11.
The Longhorns moved on with a 56-31 drubbing of No. 11 Missouri before they were locked in another dogfight with No. 7 Oklahoma State. Texas’ offense raced out to an early lead but slowed over the course of the game to bring drama to a 28-24 victory.
OSU came within four points of the tie in the fourth quarter, but it was the Texas defense that tightened late to seal the win. ET contributed to that early offensive outburst, as well as the late lockdown.