Football is right fit for former PSU basketball star

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Julius Thomas, who came to Portland State on a basketball scholarship but played some football before leaving the Vikings, has become a favorite target of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as an NFL tight end.Julius Thomas was not an immediate hit on the gridiron.

Far from it.

Nigel Burton recalls the first time the former Portland State basketball standout stepped onto the Stott practice field, turning out after four years with the Vikings' casaba crew.

"His first workout, it looked like when you put a deer on ice," says Burton, PSU's fourth-year football coach. "He was sliding all over the place. He didn't understand it's not hardwood, that you have to be able to throttle your speed down (on turf), you can't just brake."

It was the first time Thomas had played organized football since eighth grade.

"I was thinking, 'What did I get myself into?' " Thomas says. "Like, 'Maybe not the best decision to try this.' "

But baby, look at him now.

The 6-5, 250-pound Thomas couldn't have burst onto the national scene in a bigger way in Denver's 49-27 pounding of Baltimore last Thursday.

Thomas snared the first two of Peyton Manning's seven touchdown passes, finishing with five catches for 110 yards in the first prolonged action in his three-year NFL career.

"It was fun starting off the season that way," Thomas says by telephone from his Denver home, "to go out there and get some snaps under my belt. I'm a little more comfortable, a little more confident after that one."

Burton didn't get to see either of Thomas' touchdowns live.

"I was at an ice-cream social at my 7-year-old son's elementary school," the PSU coach says. "I got a text that Julius had just scored, and thought, 'That's awesome.' Then I get another text that he caught a second touchdown. I grabbed my son and said, 'We're outta here.' We went home and watched the rest of the game."

Thomas turned out for football as a freshman in high school in Lodi, Calif., but back problems kept him off the field.

"It hurt too much," he says. "The doctor told me it wouldn't be a good idea to play football that year. Then basketball was going so good, there were scholarship opportunities. My (basketball) coaches told me it wouldn't be a good idea to ruin that getting hurt playing football."

But Thomas, an undersize power forward, drew only basketball scholarship offers from Boise State and Sacramento State before choosing the Vikings.

"When I took my visit there, I wasn't sure if I was going to sign during the early signing period," Thomas says. "But I really liked the guys, and I thought Portland would be a great city to go to school and play.

"It was a great decision. I met so many great friends, people who will be friends the rest of my life. I also think living in the city of Portland helped change my mind-set on a lot of things. It's a little different atmosphere than in Northern California. I loved how friendly everybody was, how important the environment was, being close to people who are as important to you as you are to them."

Thomas' original intention was to turn out for football at PSU, too. He spoke with then-coach Tim Walsh but realized quickly that trying to play two sports in college was closer to impossible than just difficult.

So Thomas focused on basketball, where he was a big part of Ken Bone's Big Sky championship squads of 2008 and '09. He set school career records for games played (121) and field-goal percentage (.663) and as a senior in 2009-10 averaged 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds and shot a school-record .671 from the field.

When Thomas told Bone he was turning out for football after his senior basketball season, the coach wasn't surprised.

"He was a really good player for us, but he wasn't the most skilled," Bone, now head coach at Washington State, tells Yahoo Sports. "We thought he had a chance to be really good on the football field with the attributes he has. He was strong, he aggressively pursued rebounds and loose balls and he was never going to be outworked. He's a guy who is going to get the most out of his God-given talent."

Late in his senior season of basketball, about two weeks before spring vacation, Thomas approached Burton about playing football.

"I made sure he understood the challenge he'd be taking on," Burton recalls. "You always have some talk from basketball guys. There's a difference between being basketball tough and football tough.

"I didn't just dismiss him, but I told him to come back when the season was over and we'll see. He came back again, and that's when I knew he was pretty serious about it. When he showed at our first team meeting after spring break, I thought, 'OK, we'll see what happens.' "

Thomas didn't find immediate success at his new sport.

"Everything was difficult," he says. "It was a tough transition for me for the first couple of weeks. I'd been senior captain on the basketball team. I understood exactly what was expected of me, how to execute everything I needed to do on the floor. Then I go into football, where I didn't know much of anything. I didn't know how to execute any of my assignments. It was tough figuring out what's going on, even the vocabulary of the offensive terminology. I had to ask how to do everything. I was swimming upstream there for a while."

Gradually that spring, Thomas caught on. And visiting NFL scouts began to notice.

"Some of them told me, 'You're going to have an opportunity to play at the next level,' " Thomas says. "So that was my goal, to learn and play well enough to give myself a chance."

Thomas was encouraged by the NFL success of those who either played no college football or had basketball as a priority in college, players such as Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez and Julius Peppers.

"If they were able to do it, it gives you a little more confidence that maybe you can do it, too," Thomas says.

That fall, Thomas earned first-team all-Big Sky acclaim while catching 29 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns. He was productive in the post-season East-West Shrine Game, hauling in a TD pass and a two-point conversion.

Denver was impressed enough to select him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. In the offseason, Thomas beefed up 30 pounds to 250 and started the Broncos' second game against Cincinnati as a rookie. But he tore ligaments in his right ankle making his first catch, for five yards, and played in only two games the rest of the season.

"I went into the offseason rehabbing and trying to get the ankle back to where it needed to be, but it never came around," he says.

Thomas underwent surgery in April 2012. It slowed him throughout his entire second season. He played only four games, mostly on special teams, and didn't catch a pass.

After another offseason healing and strengthening the ankle, Thomas arrived at training camp "100 percent healthy," he says. He caught 12 passes for 123 yards during the preseason, gaining the confidence of Denver's coaches and Manning, who went to him early and often in his breakout performance against the Ravens.

"Peyton did a great job finding me and giving me opportunities," Thomas says. "We haven't been playing together too long, but we already have a good chemistry, and we're looking to build on it."

Playing with a future Hall-of-Famer has been "a unique experience," Thomas says. "Seeing somebody you grew up watching playing at such a high level … to have the opportunity to play with him and catch passes from him is something I never would have thought possible at 19 years old.

"He's so good at expressing what he wants from his teammates. He knows so much football, you want to be a sponge and absorb any knowledge you can from him."

Thomas says the game has finally slowed down for him.

"It's just having a better understanding of the game of football," he says. "After two years of being in the meeting rooms, I understand our offense now. It's hard enough to play in the NFL. When you're not at full strength because of an injury, it's really difficult. It was a long hard road for me. I had to put in a lot of work."

Burton isn't surprised Thomas put in the work.

"The thing that makes him special — and the reason Peyton and the Denver organization loves him — is Julius is extremely intelligent and extremely hard-working," the PSU mentor says. "You don't have to tell him anything twice. He pays attention and is able to change things very quickly. Anything I told him to do, he did — and he did more. At such a young age, he was already a pro, the way he approached the game. "

Burton understood the NFL was Thomas' primary goal.

"You don't reach an elite level at anything if you don't dream about it first," Burton says. "He had a dream that he would have a shot (at the NFL). As (his senior) season wore on and he got better, and we could see what he was capable of doing, it became more a reality."

Thomas is buoyed by the success he has shown, but knows there is much work to be done.

"I think I can have a great NFL career, but I have to continue to stay on top of improving," he says. "This will be my first year getting a lot of playing time. I have to concentrate on the little things, improving technique, listening to my coaches and my teammates. I just need to keep getting better, and we'll see what happens."

Burton won't be surprised with anything Thomas accomplishes.

"Being in that system, playing with a guy like Peyton, it's no stretch to say Julius will have a long, fruitful career and be among the best tight ends in the league," the PSU coach says. "Wouldn't that be a great story?"

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