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The Oregonian: PSU football: Julius Thomas makes leap from basketball court to field
Author: By Ian Ruder
Posted: April 19, 2010

In his 10 years coaching college football, Portland State head coach Nigel Burton has heard the story of the crossover athlete too many times to count.

A star basketball player or track athlete tells him or tells a friend to tell him that he'd like to give football a shot, figuring with all his talent the transition will be a breeze. Then when time comes to pad up and sit in on team meetings, said player is nowhere to be found.

So when Julius Thomas expressed his interest in coming out as a tight end this spring, having just wrapped up a stellar four-year career on the basketball team, Burton didn't get his hopes up.

"All I did was pray that he follow through," he said. "Then we had our first meeting on the first day of spring quarter and he was  there and I was like, good, my prayer was answered."

In his four years playing for Portland State, Thomas, a forward, set the school's record for career field goal percentage and established himself as one of the Big Sky Conference's toughest post players, often bullying bigger centers with his quickness and athleticism.

Two weeks into spring practice, Thomas is turning heads with those same skills and his dedication to relearning a sport he hasn't played since his freshman year of high school.

"I've seen basketball players try to play football and not understand that a tough guy in basketball is not a tough guy in football," Burton said. "He's taken that and absolutely run with it. He's probably been one of, if not our best blockers. He's made it important to him. He's sudden and scary as a pass receiver so it's a nice deal."

It's been a good deal for Thomas too. He is set to graduate in June but under NCAA rules he is still eligible to play football next fall and excited about getting back to playing the sport he called his "first love."

A growth spurt after his freshman year in high school helped Thomas go from freshman team scrub to varsity mainstay by his sophomore season. Despite loving to catch passes and score touchdowns, Thomas decided to focus on securing a college scholarship through basketball.

"I think about that decision a lot," he said. "I probably should have just played both in high school and just did it ... I always told myself, if I get the opportunity to play football again I'm not going to pass it up."

Under the run and shoot offense Jerry Glanville ran, tight ends were rarely needed and never recruited. That left a gaping hole for Burton to fill as he moves to the pistol offense. Having an athlete like Thomas step up has been "a pleasant surprise" Burton said.

"The tight end position is a great weapon because some of the sets we use we're able to put him in some nice mismatches," he said. "A guy like Julius is a mismatch for a linebacker because they're not going to be able to run with him. He can outrun a lot of corners too and he's so much bigger than them."

Watching Thomas stiff-arm a linebacker and then beat a corner to the sideline on a simple drag route was more than enough to impress junior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh.

"I'm not sure if he's watched Madden or he's watched a lot of NFL but how does a basketball player come out on the second day and throw a stiff-arm?" he asked in awe. "It is just crazy."

Thomas is well aware of the success NFL tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates have enjoyed after successful collegiate basketball careers.

"That's the ultimate goal," he said. "If I could come out here and play really well and Coach sees some potential and I could capitalize on that and take it to the next level."