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The Oregonian: NFL playoffs -- Broncos' Julius Thomas has breakout season, but still learning as he goes
Author: Ken Goe
Posted: January 8, 2014

Read the original article in The Oregonian.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas isn’t a finished product, and he knows it.

“If you could sit there in the meeting rooms with the coaches, you would probably be like, ‘Man, the guy has a lot to get better at,’” Thomas said, laughing after a recent practice. “You can’t get to it all.”

Which is what makes Thomas’ story so remarkable as he, quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos head into the NFL playoffs.

The former Portland State basketball player has caught 65 passes. His 12 touchdown catches ties him with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (no relation) for the team lead.

He already has set the season team record for touchdown receptions by a tight end this year, breaking the mark set in 1996 by Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl.

This from a guy who claims not to know what he is doing.

“He’s a long way from being as good as he is going to be,” teammate Andre Caldwell said. “The game still is so new to him.”

Thomas didn’t play high school football in Lodi, Calif., preferring to make a basketball a year-round commitment.

That earned him a scholarship to Portland State, where he was a power forward. He set school records for games played and field-goal percentage while also earning a business degree.

But between the business classes and the hard work in the paint, Thomas surveyed his options and decided there wasn’t a future in professional basketball for a 6-foot-5, 215-pound “4” with limited range.

However, he has a nice set of hands, a work ethic and some God-given athletic ability. So, as Thomas finished his final season of basketball eligibility in 2009-10, he decided he wanted to put on pads and catch passes.

“I thought my skill set would set up well for football,” he said.

He had to persuade PSU football coach Nigel Burton, who just had taken over the program.

The new coach was interested in Thomas’ size and raw ability. But, but by NCAA rules Thomas would have just one season of eligibility. Burton wanted a commitment, not a guy looking for a what-the-heck, one-year joyride.

“I’m not going to say I blew him off,” Burton said. “But I wanted to make sure he was serious.”

He told Thomas he expected him at PSU’s winter workouts, and then Burton did some background checking.

He learned that Thomas was a captain and team leader on the basketball team, and a serious student.

“At this school, our business department has broken a lot of wills,” Burton said.

That was impressive. So Burton gave his approval, and then Thomas proceeded to rock his world. Though the new tight end was fundamentally lacking at the most basic level, he could do things with the football nobody else on the roster could.

Thomas remembers his first catch in spring practice. It came on a short drag route. He grabbed the ball, turned upfield and went 70 yards to the end zone.

“I think the coaches were like, ‘Ummm, we might have something here,’ ” he said.

And so they did. Learning as he went, Thomas was a first-team, all-Big Sky Conference selection and showed enough potential to draw an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game.

The Broncos picked him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. But his transition to pro football was not smooth.

The 2011 lockout meant Thomas’ didn’t get to attend rookie camp before his first fall camp. Injuries, and in particular a nasty high right ankle sprain that included torn ligaments and reconstructive surgery, robbed him of his first two seasons.

The Broncos were patient. They liked the way he attacked the weight room, transforming his body into a sculptured 250 pounds, and the way he put in extra hours studying the playbook and watching video. Thomas was unafraid to make himself a pest by asking questions.

“Fortunately for me, man, I had so much development to do that I could greatly improve even without being out there on the field,” Thomas said. “I was able to sit in meetings and really start to understand the nuances of the game.”

Broncos tight ends coach Clancy Barone said tight ends often are a work in progress for NFL teams because of the proliferation of spread offenses at the high school and college levels.

“Very few of them start off playing tight end in Pop Warner and high school, and have been doing it for eight or nine years,” Barone said. “They are former receivers or former quarterbacks. The hardest thing is to teach them the basic fundamentals.”

Thomas had more ground to make up than most. But what he lacked in football experience he made up with intangibles.

“He’s very bright,” Barone said. “You don’t have to tell him anything twice. He can make adjustments quickly. And he studies like crazy.”

This season, for the first time, Thomas is seeing significant playing time. Barone said if Thomas is a rookie in terms of what he does physically on the field, he has a veteran’s understanding of the game.

It’s paying off, for Thomas and the Broncos.

Burton watches proudly from 1,200 miles away. Who knew that the best NFL player in a 2010 Oregon college class that included Jacquizz Rodgers and Stephen Paea of Oregon State and UO players Jeff Maehl and Casey Matthews would be the converted basketball player from Portland State?

While Burton joked that Thomas needs to come back to the Park Blocks for an offseason crash course in run blocking, he also noted that his NFL star in the making quietly has donated a portion of his earnings to the financially challenged PSU program.

The Vikings have used Thomas’ money to help defray the living expenses of incoming freshmen football players who enroll for summer school to get a jump on their classwork.

“Nigel took a gamble with me, and it changed my life,” Thomas said. “If I can give back to the program and give other kids an opportunity to improve their lives, it means a lot to me.”

It means something to PSU, too. Burton has an orange No. 80 Broncos game jersey framed on his office wall.

If Thomas stays healthy, and if his rocketing rate of improvement continues, there is no telling what he will accomplish before he is through.

Thomas shrugs off his achievements to date. He knows what he doesn’t know.

“People say I have to get better at blocking in the run game,” Thomas said. “That’s true. I have to get better at that. I have to get better at running routes. I have to get better at the passing game.

“There is not one facet of the game that I have figured out."

Photo: Associated Press