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.

Late in the first quarter, Earl forced a fumble that set up a long touchdown drive. In all he finished with a team-high nine tackles, the forced fumble, two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.

Oklahoma State made a late charge, but ET and the Texas D stifled the Cowboys to finish the game, continue their hot streak.

The victory over OSU set up one of the wildest games of the 2008 season the following week when Texas rode a hard-fought three-game winning streak into Lubbock for a rivalry tilt with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were undefeated and ranked No. 5, thirsty for their biggest win in school history.

UT carried a No. 1 ranking into the game and looked like it would escape hostile territory with a win. Earl posted another strong game, logging 10 tackles and a pair of pass-breakups.

Texas took its first lead of the game, 33-32, with 1:29 remaining and needed just one stop on defense to maintain their undefeated record. Texas Tech charged all the way down to the Texas 28-yard line, but had just eight seconds remaining to pull off the upset. TTU quarterback Graham Harrell dropped back for one final desperation play and found All-American receiver Michael Crabtree along the sideline.

It looked like the Horns had avoided disaster, as Crabtree was bottled up on the sideline by Texas corner Curtis Brown. But just as ET slid past Brown, Crabtree remarkably broke free and skirted into the end zone with one second left on the clock.

The loss ended Texas’ national title hopes and ended up taking away its shot at a Big 12 title as well. Oklahoma ended up representing the Big 12 South for the league title after a three-way tie between OU, UT and TTU.

However, as quarterback Colt McCoy said afterward, the Horns would move on.

“When you lose it’s tough. That’s a hard thing to deal with but this team is awesome and this team fought,” McCoy said. “We didn’t play good but we fought till the end. You can’t argue with that and like I said, we’re going to keep our heads up and keep fighting because there is a lot of football left to play and we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to put this behind us.”

Texas went on to win its final three regular-season games comfortably and earned a Fiesta Bowl bid against Ohio State.

Against the Buckeyes, the Horns built a two-possession lead going into the fourth quarter. ET led a shutdown defensive effort with a team-high nine tackles and two pass-breakups.

However, OSU mounted a late rally to take a lead with just over two minutes remaining, and it looked like it would be Lubbock all over again with another crippling late loss.

But this time, UT generated a surge of late-game karma and McCoy found receiver Quan Cosby on a game-winning 26-yard touchdown strike to give the Horns a 24-21 victory—their third BCS bowl win in program history.

Earl was named a first-team freshman All-American after starting all 13 games for UT that season. He finished No. 2 on the team and No. 1 among defensive backs with 72 tackles, to go with two interceptions and 17 pass breakups, breaking the previous UT record for freshmen.

As a team, UT finished No. 1 in the Big 12 and No. 18 in the NCAA in scoring defense, allowing just 18.8 points per game. While those numbers were impressive for a young unit, the Longhorns knew there was room to improve. The season-closing BCS bowl victory and the return of all their key players set the stage for the Longhorns to be a national title favorite the following season. And ETIII’s outstanding individual as a freshman put him in position to be a key part of that run.


Earl’s second year on the field at Texas brought something for everyone—a little revenge, more rivalry wins and another jaw-dropping finish. It didn’t have the full fairytale ending, but the 2009-10 campaign was special nonetheless for ETIII and UT.

The Horns cruised through their first two games against Louisiana-Monroe and Wyoming with ease. Meanwhile, Earl’s season—which ended as a record-shattering run—started slow statistically. He notched just five tackles and four pass breakups over the first two games.

But as the Longhorns began conference play, ET turned his game up a notch and grabbed five interceptions over the next four games.

That stretch started with a 10-tackle effort against Texas Tech that came with one pick and two pass breakups. The Horns only trailed once in the game, after the Red Raiders knocked home a field goal on their first drive. UT answered shortly after with a touchdown and never looked back. TTU tried its hand at another late victory, but came up short, as the Horns escaped 34-24. Afterward, Earl commended the Red Raiders for the effort, but also praised his teammates for persevering through the victory.

“We are just happy we are 3-0. They fought hard. I give a lot of credit to them,” ET said. “We needed this game—it was good for the whole team. We played from the heart and we pulled it out.”

As ET pulled down his first pick of the season in the win, he felt a breakthrough in his play, and claimed afterward, “It’s about time.”

With the weight of that first interception off his shoulders, Earl took off. He pulled down two interceptions in the following game as Texas annihilated UTEP, 64-7. The effort earned him Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors, but although he had his own enormous game to celebrate, Earl was even more ecstatic about his teammates Blake Gideon and Ben Wells notching their first INTs of the season.

“I just jumped on (Gideon’s) back. I was happy for him. He caught it at the high point. It was just over the top. I’m glad he got one,” Earl said. “We were all pumped, especially Ben getting it, because he hasn’t had a lot of snaps. He read the play real well. He came up and made a good interception. I’m proud of them both.”

ETIII and Co. held UTEP to just 44 yards passing and 53 total yards and the effort proved to themselves and the nation that this UT defense was truly elite.

After the UTEP victory, the Texas offense went stagnant in its Big 12 opener against Colorado, but ETIII and the UT defensive and special teams units were there to shoulder the load.

The Horns fell behind 14-3 early and trailed 14-10 at halftime as the offense struggled. But in the second half, Earl returned an interception 92 yards for a touchdown—tied for the second-longest return in school history. That score was sandwiched by a punt return touchdown and a punt block touchdown, which led to a comfortable 38-14 victory.

After his INT return spurred the win, Earl received some praise in the media from head coach Mack Brown.

“Earl’s playing so well,” Brown said. “He’s one of the guys, like Jordan (Shipley), that I don’t think is getting enough credit. He’s hitting, he’s playing well, he’s intercepting balls. I was really glad that two games in a row that Blake Gideon has made really tough and good interceptions. I’m really, really proud of those guys and I do think we’re getting better in the secondary.”

Little did Brown know, ET and the UT secondary were just getting started. The following week, Texas needed its defensive backs more than ever as its offense went silent, tallying just 269 total yards against rival Oklahoma.

Earl responded with one of the biggest games of his career, as he paced his squad with seven tackles, including two for a loss of 21 yards, a forced fumble, three pass breakups and the game-sealing interception. 

With Texas ahead by three, OU was driving late when ET flashed underneath his receiver, undercutting the route and pulling down the pick. After his clutch takeaway, the Horns were able to run out the clock and pull off the 16-13 triumph.

After being picked off, OU quarterback Landry Jones looked up at the video board in astonishment that Earl made the play he did. Afterward, ET—who was again named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week—revealed why:

“Well I was in a man under,” Earl said of his game-deciding interception vs. OU, “I faked like I was blitzing and I came back under and it just so happened he threw it and I was able to make the play for the team.”

As it often does for UT, the victory in the Red River Shootout set the tone for the remainder of the season. The Horns followed the rivalry win by blasting Missouri, Oklahoma State, UCF, Baylor and Texas A&M to close out the regular season.

This time around, the Horns left nothing to chance and avoided a tiebreaker by cruising through the regular season unscathed at 12-0 and 8-0 in Big 12 play.

Texas landed in the Big 12 title game against Nebraska knowing that a win would send them to the national championship game at the Rose Bowl. The Big 12 Championship was a wild contest that featured six turnovers and just 308 total yards between the two offenses.

Earl and the Texas defense played a masterful game, holding NU to just 106 total yards, including just 39 yards passing, while keeping the Cornhuskers out of the end zone.

The game came down to the final seconds when McCoy found himself scrambling before throwing the ball out of bounds. Initially the clock read all zeros at the completion of the play—and Texas’ national title dreams looked to be expired.

However, the play was reviewed and one second was put back on the clock, giving kicker Hunter Lawrence just enough time to boot a 46-yard field goal to give UT a 13-12 win and send the Longhorns to the national title game.

After beginning the season at No. 2 in the polls, Texas found itself in the same position heading into the battle for the crystal football.

The Horns were No. 1 in the nation in rush defense, but were faced with a test unlike any they had seen in the regular season. Alabama boasted a powerful rushing attack led by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.

All was going well for the Horns early on, as Earl and the defense were performing at a high level, holding Alabama scoreless in the first frame. However, in that first quarter, McCoy went down with a shoulder injury, which greatly changed the complexion of the contest.

After Texas dominated the opening frame, Bama was injected with newfound energy in the absence of McCoy, sending it on a 24-0 run to end the first half.

But even with true freshman Garrett Gilbert at the helm, Texas fought back. ET and the UT defense locked down after the break, holding UA scoreless in the third quarter and through much of the final frame.

Meanwhile, Gilbert settled in and hit Jordan Shipley for a pair of touchdown passes to bring Texas within three, 24-21. But in the final minutes, the Crimson Tide went back to their run game, as Ingram and Trent Richardson punched in two late touchdowns to sew up the national title.

ET finished with six tackles and his secondary held Alabama to just 58 passing yards, but the Horns had no answer for the one-two punch of Ingram and Richardson.

Although that disappointing result soured an otherwise charmed season, it still couldn’t detract from the remarkable individual year had by ETIII.

He finished No. 2 in the nation with eight interceptions, while landing No. 2 on the team with 77 tackles. He was credited with 24 passes defended by UT, though the NCAA noted just 18, putting him at No. 6 nationally. Texas finished 19th in pass defense and third in total defense.

The incredible season resulted in a showering of accolades for ETIII: Thorpe Award finalist, consensus first-team All-American, first-team unanimous All-Big 12. But the biggest surprise for Earl was his draft stock, which had skyrocketed by season’s end.

“Going into the season I was just focusing on working hard, and as the games went on, the plays just kept coming. I started to hear some buzz as the season went on and by the time the national championship rolled around, I heard people calling me a top-ten pick. But at the beginning, I had no clue.”

Though he was a sophomore in terms of eligibility, Earl was three years removed from high school, making him eligible for the NFL draft. Though the thought never crossed his mind before the season, the decision became clear with time: Earl Thomas was going to the NFL.