Former hoopster a quick study on football field

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(Eds: Adds quotes, background. With AP Photos.)By ARNIE STAPLETONAP Pro Football Writer

Julius Thomas traded in his basketball sneakers for football cleats a year ago and now he's pulling down receptions for the Denver Broncos like he did rebounds for Portland State.

The tight end played just one year of college football after leading the Vikings basketball team to two NCAA tournament berths. That was enough for the Broncos to move up in the draft to select the intriguing 6-foot-5, 255-pound former forward in the fourth round.

Quarterback Kyle Orton said he's impressed by the not-so-raw rookie with uncanny instincts that belie the fact he's only been playing football, much less tight end, since last August.

''That's just an all feel position, and he's got a great feel for his routes and for when he is open,'' Orton said. ''A lot of young kids, they're running around but they don't necessarily know when they're open. He's got that about him, where he knows when he's open and knows where I want to go with the football.''

Thomas doesn't look anything like a man who's been playing tight end for just a year, said Daniel Fells, who signed with Denver as a free agent this summer.

''I'm actually very impressed with him because I came here from St. Louis and we had a guy out there that came out of one year of college as well, Fendi Onobun, and I think Julius is strides ahead of that guy,'' Fells said. ''Julius seems to pick up the playbook very well. And he's very athletic and he seems to understand the game of football.''

The Broncos are hoping they've discovered in Thomas the next Antonio Gates, who made a smooth transition from the basketball court at Kent State to the football field and became a perennial Pro Bowler for the San Diego Chargers.

He's got a long ways to go to be compared to Gates, but Thomas said he aspires ''to make that comparison as similar as possible.''

Thomas was a power forward in college who was a bully in the blocks, swatting 62 shots and pulling down 520 rebounds. He set school records in games played (121) and career wins (78).

Once he exhausted his basketball eligibility, and with one scholarship season left, he contacted Vikings football coach Nigel Burton about stepping onto the football field for the first time.

Thomas was a quick study, catching 29 passes for 453 yards and earning All-Big Sky Conference first-team honors. His stock soared at the East-West Shrine Game, where he captured the attention of scouts with his athleticism and grabbed a 5-yard TD pass.

Thomas said he feels like he's been a football player his whole life.

''I never always felt like a basketball player. I played basketball and that was my life, but I never felt like that game completely fit me,'' he said. ''So, I probably felt most of the time like in between. I always liked football, felt like I'd be good at it. Obviously, I wasn't playing it.

''Then when I started playing football, I had been playing basketball for so long and even though this game fits me and it makes sense and I like it a lot, I still have basketball tendencies and that's something I don't know if it will ever change. I'll don't know if I'll ever be a football player or a basketball player. I think I'll always be both and I'm fine with that.''

As well he should be, said Fells, who played hoops himself - back in high school - and said you can see how those skills that Thomas honed on the hardwood translate to the gridiron.

''Even out on the football field they still use basketball terminologies like posting guys up, because typically guys who are covering us aren't as big as us, so they're typically like, `Post `em up, use your body, get big' as if you were in the post. Little things like that,'' Fells said.

''So, I think basketball players have the ability to use their bodies more and that translates into football. When you're running routes and you've got competition against a DB or a safety or anyone, you've got to learn to use your body and control yourself in the air.''

Thomas said his basketball background has helped him navigate the crash course of NFL football. He makes split-second decisions, deciphers defenses, anticipates the action, adjusts on the fly just like he did on the basketball floor.

He said shielding a defensive back to give the quarterback an opening is just like posting up a player under the basket to give the point guard a clear passing lane.

Yet, while Thomas said his transition from one sport to the other may look seamless, it's been anything but smooth.

''When I first started playing football a little over a year ago it was very difficult. I needed to learn everything about the game, including terminology and techniques along with sort of what to expect,'' he said. ''So, my first two weeks were probably the two toughest weeks I've had athletically, starting something at such a high level was very difficult.

''So, it took me a while to get to where I really felt comfortable being out there and comfortable doing the things I had to do, but I figured it out eventually.''

And now he's made an even bigger jump to the NFL.

''Yeah, it's definitely something that you've got to get your head around, being a rookie learning professional offenses is something that it's pretty difficult, especially without the OTAs this year and coming in and being expected to know what the starters know out there,'' Thomas said. ''So, that was very tough. I spent pretty much every second of my day in that playbook, trying to figure out what my assignments were and what I need to get done.

''It's starting to make sense.''

And he's starting to make some head-turning plays.


Connect with AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton at

Tagged: Broncos, Chargers, Daniel Fells, Julius Thomas

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