By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When people first started asking Julius Thomas about his best time in the 40-yard dash, he responded by telling them he hadn't been clocked.
It was hardly the answer one would expect from an NFL prospect without anything to hide.
Thomas, though, isn't the typical prospect heading into the draft in April. This time last year, he was completing his final season on a basketball scholarship at Portland State and hadn't played football since his freshman year of high school.
He had one year of athletic eligibility remaining at Portland State, so he took it as a fifth-year senior walk-on with the football team. The Vikings needed a tight end and the 6-foot-4 1/2, 240-pound Thomas fit the athletic bill.
After enjoying a banner season, while earning All-Big Sky Conference first- team honors, Thomas has drawn the attention of NFL teams. He scored the only points for the West in the East-West Shrine Game last month and is considered a mid- to late-round draft pick. He hopes to open up eyes wider later this month at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
His unusual story has earned Thomas comparisons to Antonio Gates, who played basketball, not football, at Kent State, but has gone on to become one of the best tight ends in NFL history with the San Diego Chargers. Others compare Thomas to Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, whose athleticism and size are similar.
The comparisons could be setting up Thomas for impossible expectations, but he views them as positives.
"When you're compared to somebody like Antonio Gates," he said, "who obviously made an amazing transition to football from basketball, always in the Pro Bowl, that's something you have to feel good about and something I have to take on with a little chip on my shoulder. When you're getting compared to guys, I take it as something I should be able do everything I can to try to reach that level of play, motivate myself to get to that level. Jermichael Finley, he's probably my favorite tight end in the NFL just to watch, the way he runs routes. It's like he's just a huge receiver out there, his ability to catch the ball. Just being compared to him, it's a good thing for me. That's somebody I look at and I really appreciate the way he plays the position. Being compared to those two guys, I probably couldn't pick two other guys I'd rather be compared to."
Thomas originally wanted to play both basketball and football at Portland State, but the overlap of seasons prevented it. As a forward in basketball, he set the program records for games played (121), career wins (78) and career field-goal percentage (.663). He was named to two Big Sky all-tournament teams and played for the Vikings' conference champions who advanced to the 2008 and '09 NCAA tournaments.
Thomas believed he had the skill set to play in the NFL, so he passed up opportunities to play basketball overseas to concentrate on a pro football career.
In his one season of football at Portland State, he had 29 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns.
"I always had the feeling that football was something I could be really good at," said Thomas, who in addition to having physical tools and raw ability is a fast learner. He's been polishing his technique, and weight lifting has taken his frame up to 250 pounds.
"If you're going to tell me that I have the height and the speed and the strength to do something, and the only thing I need to do is learn, then I knew I was confident I could pick this up. I was confident that I could learn defenses, I was confident I could learn to run routes, blocking. I always feel like learning is one of my strong suits."
Considering his relative inexperience, Thomas remained unsure about how he fit in at the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 24 in Orlando, Fla. Then he went out and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion to provide the West with its only points in a 25-8 loss. The week's experience, where he spoke of his transition of sports over and over to NFL scouts, gave him a jolt of confidence.
"They're looking at him as having a tremendous upside," Buchanan said. "He's probably more of a sixth-round, seventh-round guy now. But with his upside, he's going to get pushed up the draft. I think it can be looked at as a positive because they really look at him as a clean slate. They can teach him a lot, he doesn't have a lot of bad habits. It's easy to correct a bad habit you picked up in one year as opposed to a bad habit you've had for 10 years."
Thomas, who is represented by sports agent Frank Bauer of Sun West Sports Associates in Stockton, Calif., will leave for the NFL Combine on Feb. 21. Over 300 players will be scheduled over four-day periods from Feb. 23 to March 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts.
"I think one of the things that people say is, 'You're inexperienced, you haven't had much time in the game.' So I think a lot of people assume I don't know as much about the game, but I've been able to learn," Thomas said.
"I think over time it will start to show itself that I'm a real mental person. That's something I pride myself on. I put a lot of effort into it.
"As I'm out here working out, I'm really focusing on trying to work all the weaknesses in my game as well as the strengths. I think I have room to grow in every aspect of my football game."
"I'm just really thankful that people believe in the ability that I have. I'm just trying to do the best job I can do every day, try to show people I really can play."
When people ask, Julius Thomas now can tell them about his 40-yard dash time. In his only timing, he clocked 4.62 seconds.
Not bad for a true football rookie.