Checking in with ... Austin Thomas

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Austin Thomas might be a little torn about the seemingly never-ending Big Ten-SEC debate. The junior strong safety plays for a Big Ten team, Indiana, but he grew up in the thick of SEC country (Woodstock, Ga.). Thomas seems to be settling in as a Yankee, though, after leading Indiana and ranking seventh in the league with 112 tackles last season. His 22-tackle performance against Michigan State last season marked the first time a Hoosiers player collected 20 tackles in a game since 1993.

Thomas anchors a Hoosiers secondary in search of two new cornerbacks. Though much of the offseason attention focused on quarterback Kellen Lewis, who was suspended for spring ball and reinstated earlier this month, Indiana's ultimate fate usually hinges on its defense. Here's what Thomas had to say about his southern roots, Lewis and a crucial season for the Hoosiers, who come off their first bowl appearance since 1993.

Coming from Georgia, did you grow up an SEC fan?

Austin Thomas: I was kind of neutral growing up, just as far as the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry. I had several friends go out and play in the SEC and the ACC, but I didn't really sway one way or the other.

So where do you stand in the whole Big Ten vs. SEC debate? Are you a Big Ten guy now, or do you stand up for the SEC?

AT: Growing up in the South, man, it's hard to knock southern football. But playing in the Big Ten, I wouldn't ask for it any other way. It's great competition. So I'm a Big Ten guy now.

I'm sure not a ton of guys from Georgia come to Indiana. How did you end up there?

AT: The final factor was my official visit here. I had a great time and just fell in love with the place in two days: the staff, academics, everything. Coach Hep [Terry Hoeppner] recruited me when he was at Miami of Ohio, and when he made the switch over here and brought the whole staff over, he immediately offered me and told me to come up. Talked me into it. I wasn't even planning on coming up. I came up and just fell in love with the place.

So much of what the team did last season was dedicated to him. Have you seen the atmosphere around the program change at all, having finally reached a bowl game?

AT: Absolutely. I can't even believe it's my fourth year here. I've seen so much change as far as the program, our fan base increasing, winning ballgames. He did so much for this program.

The coaches put in the no-huddle offense in spring practice. What was it like going against that system?

AT: It's tough, especially with our offense. We have so many weapons, with Kellen, all our receivers, Marcus [Thigpen] back there. It's tough to keep up with it. I'm really looking forward to staying on the side and watching Kellen and them go to work. It's going to do big things this year.

In the secondary, you guys lost a couple of pretty good players [Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors] at cornerback. How much does it hurt losing those guys and what are you looking for from that group in camp?

AT: Any time you lose two NFL-bound corners, you're going to take a hit. We've got some young guys, but we've got freshmen and sophomores willing to step up. They're working hard. We've got a veteran back there -- Chris Phillips -- he's working hard, too. We'll just see how it goes.

Who is a guy among that group that people haven't heard of but they will this fall?

AT: We've got some real potential in Donnell Jones, a kid from Florida. He passes the eye test already. He's fast, real strong kid. Richard Council looks like he can step up, Chris Adkins, I could name a lot of the young guys. A lot of young, good, physical-looking corners that can step up and play.

Greg [Middleton] had such a big year for you guys down on the line. What stands out to you about how he plays?

AT: Greg's an animal, man. I don't know if there's anybody out there that can contain him. With someone like that on the line, especially as a DB, it makes it that much better when you know you're going to get pressure on the quarterback. That's just something you need as a defense. It's huge.

I'm sure a lot of fans were anxious to hear about Kellen, whether he'd be back or not. As players, were you ever concerned?

AT: Everybody was concerned. They kind of kept us in the dark. We didn't know what was really going on, but we were just very happy to see him reinstated. Everybody's really excited to have him back.

Were any of you guys in touch with him while he was away?

AT: I stay close to Kellen and I really didn't get to talk to him that much throughout the summer. He went home for a little while to take some time off. He's back now, working out with the team, ever since he's been reinstated.

Is he excited? Disappointed about what happened? What do you gather from him, being back with the team?

AT: Just seeing him the last couple weeks, he just seems like he's got that enthusiasm again. He's excited to be back, ready to work hard, ready to get out there.

After missing spring ball, how do you think he'll pick up the no-huddle offense in camp?

AT: He'll pick it up, no problem. Our coaches built it in for guys just like him. He's been gone for a little bit, but he'll fall back into it.

How critical is this season for your program to keep things going? You mentioned the cornerbacks you lose, you obviously lost [wideout] James [Hardy], but you bring back a lot of guys as well.

AT: Everybody knows exactly how important this season is. It's the most important one we've all had here. Everybody's extremely excited about it. We know we have to win these games, we have to go back [to a bowl game], because we wouldn't have it any other way.