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Broncos tight end latest college basketball star to have NFL impact

After a college career in basketball, Julius Thomas has followed several over hoops players into the NFL.

Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas celebrates one of his two touchdowns last week. Jack Dempsey / AP Photo
Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas celebrates one of his two touchdowns last week. Jack Dempsey / AP Photo

To evaluate potential players, NFL talent scouts prowl football practices and games at university level.

For assessing contemporary tight ends, they might broaden their scope to include the basketball gym.

Julius Thomas of Denver is the latest find at a newly defined position. After just one reception in his first two pro seasons, the tight end befriended Peyton Manning in the Broncos’ opener against Baltimore with five grabs, two for touchdowns, and 110 yards.

Basketball was Thomas’s lone college pursuit until he strolled into the football offices in 2010 to seek a tryout. His only formal experience with the sport was in a youth league years earlier, but he had developed a persistent football itch that needed scratching.

If it had not been for the fact the team had just shifted its offensive concept, Thomas might have been told “thanks, but no thanks” and sent on his way. But the coach granted an audition, even though Thomas would have only one eligible season.

Thomas caught on quickly enough that Denver drafted him in the fourth round. He was cut from the same physical mould as NFL standouts Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and the peerless Tony Gonzalez, all of whom had concentrated on basketball through most of their athletic upbringing.

As football has evolved into a sophisticated form of pitch-and-catch, requirements for a tight end have expanded. He must wield sufficient size and strength to block behemoth defensive linemen and fend off beefy linebackers on pass routes. He must exhibit traits of a gazelle and hands of flypaper to fetch throws.

It is no wonder that NFL executives have long imagined LeBron James strapping on a helmet in search of a new challenge. There is little doubt which position he would be assigned.

A lingering right ankle injury had kept Thomas anonymous, leaving the Ravens with little to go on while preparing for the Broncos. Now, the secret is out,

“It will be interesting to see how teams play Julius all season,” Manning said. “He is a big guy. He definitely will make teams have a conversation – you want guys that make teams have a discussion: ‘How are we going to handle this guy?’”

Thomas was informed after Denver’s resounding win that 718 days flew by since his previous catch.

“It’s tough to stay focused and keep remembering what you’re working for,” he said. “But I made it through and it feels good to have all that behind me.”

With about a decade between organised football games before joining the NFL, Thomas could lean on acquired patience.

Not everyone can complete the round ball to oblong ball transition. Murray Holloway – bigger and bulkier than Thomas, plus more accomplished at hoops – was approached by several NFL teams after a university career without football. He signed with the Ravens but was released.