From PSU to NFL: Julius Thomas Has Mile-High Expectations

Portland State has sent about two dozen players to the NFL since the late sixties. Most notably Neil Lomax, who was drafted in the second round by the Cardinals, went to the Pro Bowl twice and had what would have been a successful career if it had been for any team other than the Cardinals. Exercises in futility aside, Lomax is still the most illustrious former Viking by a pretty wide margin. Now there’s a new name entering the conversation. In the first month of the 2013 NFL season, Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas has had 11 catches for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns in what looks to be the beginning of a breakout year for the former PSU basketball star.

Basketball star? That’s right, Thomas led the Vikings to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2008 and 2009, and only played football with his final year of eligibility in 2010. Thomas left the PSU hardcourt owning school records in shooting percentage from the floor, games played, and career wins. He was a leader on two Big Sky Conference Championship teams in addition to the NCAA tourney bids, but decided that his athleticism gave him a shot at a better career on the gridiron than trying to grind it out playing basketball overseas. “He was a phenomenal offensive rebounder, where you have to have a knack to go get the ball…A lot of it was body control, which translates to football,” PSU head basketball coach Tyler Geving told USA Today.

Head football coach Nigel Burton tested Thomas’ dedication to a game he hadn’t played since his freshman year of high school by setting their first meeting for a Sunday night at 9 p.m.  Julius showed up on time and ready for that meeting and was one of the hardest workers on the team from that point on. His relentless work ethic and intelligence allowed him to catch up to the college game and become one of the team’s primary offensive threats.

In 2010 the Vikings were in transition. It was their first season under Coach Burton and they were not the offensive juggernaut the 2013 team appears to be, finishing 2-9. However, even in an offense that didn’t put up huge numbers, Thomas was able to catch 29 passes for 435 yards and two touchdowns, earning All-Big Sky honors and garnering some national attention.

That attention led to a strong performance in the East-West Shrine game and an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine, where the 6’5” tight end ran a 4.68 second 40-yard dash and demonstrated a 35.5” vertical jump. Two months later, the Denver Broncos traded up to take Thomas in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, 129th overall. In his first two NFL seasons he was limited by a high ankle sprain that required surgery and rehabilitation. Coming into the 2013 season, Thomas had exactly one career catch for five yards, but people paying close attention to the Broncos were predicting a big season for him well before the first kickoff.

The Broncos started the season with two other well-regarded tight ends on the roster—Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen—that figured to play ahead of Thomas. Tamme has familiarity with quarterback Peyton Manning that stretches back to their time together in Indianapolis, and both he and Dreesen had established themselves as reliable targets in the Denver passing attack. Nonetheless, when Julius made the most of his opportunities in the preseason with 12 receptions for 123 yards, he jumped over the two incumbent tight ends on the depth chart to go into the season as the starter. He hasn’t looked back yet, except at defensive backs trailing behind him as he heads into the end zone.

Julius Thomas appears poised to successfully pull off the transition from college basketball player to superstar NFL tight end. He is following a blueprint laid out by the likes of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham. If he can put together a career anything like theirs, the business administration graduate will show the NFL the potential that exists at PSU. With Coach Burton’s team playing the way they currently are, he won’t be the last to do so.

 Interview with Julius Thomas: 

Julius Thomas took some time out from catching touchdowns to answer a few questions for the Vanguard.  Special thanks to Christian Edwards of the Denver Broncos Media Relations Department for conducting the interview.

On his time at Portland State: “I think our coaches and the football department did a fantastic job. They didn’t have a lot of time with me, but just everything they were able to do as I was learning the game [was helpful]. I spent a lot of time in the football office bugging them and they were really receptive to it. They helped me along—helped me learn a lot about the things in football that I needed to learn. They prepared me and they gave me a good foundation to play at this level.”

On coach Burton: “(laughing) Coach Burton is a great guy. I respect him as a coach and as a man. He’s just hilarious. At practice he had this whistle, and there was an Usher song at the time, and he would whistle the rhythm to that song in between periods. It’s raining, it’s coming down, it’s freezing cold, and he’s running around with energy—showing excitement out there.”

On what it feels like to catch passes from Peyton Manning: “The catching passes is the easy part. It’s not too difficult to catch a pass that hits you right in the chest. It’s a challenge and it’s exciting at the same time. Peyton, he does a lot of things. He’s very creative as a quarterback and we have to be ready for whenever he does something that he does. He’s well known for his adjustments at the line. When you’re a part of that offense you have to be just as prepared as he is and you have to think fast [and] react accordingly. He also does a good job of communication [in] what he’s looking for, helping you understand what the defense is giving us—what we’re seeing from an offensive standpoint.  That’s just helped with my maturation as a player. Having a guy that’s been playing for 16/17 years at a high level, and being able to pick his brain and have him mentor me along, it’s great for my career.”

His advice to current Vikings players that want to emulate his success: “You got to follow your dreams. When I say follow your dreams I mean have an idea of what you want to do. You have to be able to take the actions that are going to put you in that position. When I started playing football I just immersed myself in the game. Every opportunity I had to get better was something that I took advantage of. Every time I could get on the field, even when it wasn’t mandatory for the team to be out there, I would be calling the quarterbacks trying to work. Just trying to get anything I could get from anybody to really help me along the way. Believe in yourself, believe in your dream, but make sure at the same time you’re doing everything you can to reach it.”

Coach Burton Interview: 

Current head football coach Nigel Burton has helped quite a few players make it to the NFL during his 14 year coaching career. The Vanguard had a chance to speak with him after a recent practice and hear some of his thoughts on Julius Thomas’ success:

On the potential he saw in Julius Thomas during his year on the PSU team: “When you’re athletic coupled with being smart and you work hard, that’s a great combination. It’s great to see all that pay off for him.”

On his potential strengths and limitations at the NFL level: “As to his strengths, the three that I mentioned, being athletic, smart and working hard.  In terms of his limits I don’t know that there necessarily are any. You know I hear people talking about his blocking, and then on the very next play he stuck his shoulder into a pretty good player in Terrell Suggs and dropped him. I think the only thing that’ll limit him is the ability to stay healthy.”

On which of his current players may be able to follow Thomas’ path to NFL success: “Aw shoot, I don’t know. I let somebody else worry about that stuff, you know my biggest thing is to focus on this team. Us getting better week by week. I think the beauty is we haven’t even begun to show all of the different weapons offensively that we have. There are some guys that I think are poised to break out, it just depends on what a defense gives us and we go from there.”

On which players a Baltimore Ravens scout was at practice to see: “They just come by generally early.  All 32 teams will be by at least once if not two or three times.”

Current Viks Scouting Report

Coach Burton may not have been interested in singling out individual players and forecasting their ability to make it to the NFL, and it’s probably a good thing that our head football coach chooses to stay focused on the task at hand—preparing his team to win the next game on the schedule each week. However, at the Vanguard sports desk we are not responsible for game planning, so we decided to put together a scouting report on the Vikings we think are most likely to find a job in the NFL.

DJ Adams – 2012 Honorable Mention All-Big Sky Conference running back who also won the 2012 PSU Team Most Inspirational Player. So far this year he has been seen running past, around and through opponents on his way to 617 yards and eight touchdowns in the first five games.

Roston Tatum– A wide receiver with prototypical size and speed. If Tatum can get back on the field and show the big-play potential he flashed with an 80 yard touchdown against Eastern Oregon, he could be playing on Sundays in a couple of years.

Mitch Gaulke – Honorable Mention All-Big Sky Conference for 2011-12 as well as making Academic All-Big Sky the last three years in a row. Intelligence, consistency and the ability to react to the defense is what Gaulke brings as the anchor of the offensive line. He has started 27 games in a row at center, stretching back to the beginning of the 2011 season.

Jaycob Shoemaker – We gave some attention to the defensive side of the ball as well, and Shoemaker stands out. Also a 2012 All-Big Sky Honorable Mention, he came into the season as the team’s top returning tackler and has shown no signs of slowing down with 43 tackles, including six for a loss, in the first five weeks.

Even though the above players were the ones we picked as the current most-likely NFL prospects, there’s also good reason to keep an eye on the development of: QB Kieran McDonagh, WR Kasey Closs, RB Shaq Richard, OL Mitchell Van Dyk, LB Corey Crowder, DE Jeremy Boone and OL Cornelius Edison, among others. Everyone looks good when a team is playing as well as the Viks have been so far.