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Broncos' Julius Thomas makes quick transition to football stardom

Julius Thomas played basketball for four seasons at Portland State, then joined the football team. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end has developed into a Pro Bowl player in only three seasons.

January 28, 2014|By Gary Klein
  • Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas answers questions at Super Bowl XLVIII media day at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday. Thomas has played an important role in the Broncos' offense this season.
Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas answers questions at Super Bowl… (Elsa Garrison / Getty Images )

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Most NFL players require years to hone their football skills and become pros.

Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas needed one season of college football.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thomas played basketball for four seasons at Portland State, then joined the school's football team and ended up being selected in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft.

Three years later, he's preparing for the Super Bowl.

"This isn't something that I imagined doing when I was 20 years old, getting ready to play in the NCAA tournament," Thomas said this week. "I wasn't thinking, 'Man, if you just fast-forward that clock a little bit, you'll be competing in the biggest game in America.' "

Thomas played a large role in the Broncos' run to the matchup Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks and helped Peyton Manning achieve a record-setting season.

Thomas caught 65 passes, 12 for touchdowns, and was voted to the Pro Bowl. In the Broncos' AFC championship game victory over the New England Patriots, Manning found Thomas eight times for 85 yards.

"He is a big part of why we are here this week," Manning said Tuesday during Super Bowl media day at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Thomas is the latest incarnation of the big, athletic tight end with limited football experience. Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints also parlayed college basketball skills into NFL opportunities.

"He has wide-receiver talents and they move him in and out in the slot and will play him as an outside receiver as well," Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said of Thomas. "They run all of the routes the receivers run with him, so their confidence in him tells us what kind of player we're dealing with."

Carroll and Thomas share a connection.

Thomas' father, Greg, played at University of the Pacific when Carroll was an assistant there. Greg Thomas said Carroll moved him from receiver to H-back and he subsequently suffered a knee injury.

The setback ended his career, but Greg Thomas said it put him on a path to meet the woman who would become Julius' mother.

"I tell Julius, 'You owe your existence to Pete Carroll,' " Greg, a principal at a Sacramento high school, said while laughing during a phone interview. "If Julius comes back to do something great to beat the Seahawks, it's going to be all Pete's fault."

Thomas played football as a freshman at Tokay High in Lodi, Calif., but basketball was his passion.

Greg said he tried to persuade his son to play football his senior season.

"I said, 'Look, Julius, we're talking about numbers," Greg said, referring to scholarship opportunities. "I told him, 'You go out and play football … you're so big, strong and fast, I'll have you at 'SC with one phone call.'

"But that was not enough."

Instead, Thomas went to Portland State and played power forward for a program that reached the NCAA tournament twice in his four seasons.

Portland State football Coach Nigel Burton said Thomas came to his office with a football player to express interest in joining the team after he completed his basketball eligibility.

"I didn't blow him off, but I wanted to make sure he was serious about it," Burton recalled. "I told him to come back to our first meeting on a Sunday night at 9.

"Sure enough, he was sitting there on the floor to the left. I knew at that moment he was serious."

Portland State offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum said Thomas "looked like Charlie Brown" on his first few pass-catching attempts.

But he quickly caught on.

"Normal people don't make those adjustments," said Steve Cooper, who was coaching tight ends at the time. "It almost was like watching a baby deer running around."

Thomas' breakout play came in the seventh game against Montana State. He lined up in the slot, and then made an adjustment on a deep route and scored on a 55-yard pass play.

"He catches the ball, grabs a little safety and throws him away and has two guys on his back and flips them over," Barnum recalled, adding, "I said, 'I'll be damned.'"

Thomas finished with 29 receptions and was selected All-Big Sky Conference.

But Thomas' NFL career started slowly. He suffered an ankle injury in his rookie season and did not catch a pass in 2012 while recovering from surgery.

Thomas, however, said he received encouragement from Manning, who had signed with the Broncos in March 2012.

"Last year when I wasn't playing, he told me, 'Just keep working. Everybody notices what you're doing in practice and you're going to get your chance. Just make sure you're ready for it.'

"This off-season, Peyton told me, 'Hey, man, this is a good opportunity for you, make the most of it. Just go out there, have fun and enjoy it, but come to work with the right mind-set and we have some plays where we can use you this year.'"

Now, after learning from coaches and seeking feedback from Manning, Thomas is poised to play in the Super Bowl.

"I always like that, being an older player, when a young player truly wants to be a great player," Manning said. "I think he does.

"If he keeps that up, he will be for a long time."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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