Former standout college QB Justin Thomas making strides as Steelers WR
College quarterbacks have been known to be offended at NFL teams asking them to move to a different position .
But when they do, often it proves the best thing for them .
In Justin Thomas’ case, he left his NFL options open after finishing his college career as a dynamic three-year starting quarterback at Georgia Tech. Thomas went through his draft preparation, training and pro day honing and showing skills mostly for quarterback and cornerback.
But also for wide receiver.
Not much more than three months after the 2017 draft, Thomas had gone unpicked and had been signed and cut twice.
After being unemployed for almost three weeks over training camp that August, the Steelers called. They wanted him to try receiver.
“I know when Coach (Mike Tomlin) talked to me, he said, ‘You can go into it having a (negative) mindset, or you can just flip your whole mind and be that much better,’ ” Thomas said from minicamp earlier this month. “So I am trying to go into that mindset: 100 percent receiver. That’s where I am at right now, that’s what my situation is, and I am trying to embrace it as much as possible.”
Thomas has a long way to go before he so much as appears in a regular-season game at the position, let along make a 53-man roster. But considering the circumstances, the progress he’s made in a relatively short period of time is encouraging.
Despite not joining the Steelers until half their preseason schedule was over, Thomas was named to the team’s practice squad less two weeks into practicing with the team.
In other Steelers news, they just announced the signing of CB Mike Hilton to a 1-year contract. Signed to futures contracts are DE Lavon Hooks, LB Keith Kelsey, WR Justin Thomas and WR Marcus Tucker
— Joe Rutter (@tribjoerutter) January 16, 2018
When the season ended, the Steelers quickly retained Thomas by inking him to a reserve/future contract less than 48 hours later.
“He’s still learning – but he does have some talent,” new wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said. “When they brought in him here, they saw he had some quickness and some speed. He’s still in the process of learning, and he understands and knows that learning happens and that he has to continue to grow – but it has to grow fast if he’s going to have a chance to play.”
Thomas started at quarterback for 38 of Georgia Tech’s 39 games over his sophomore through senior seasons, accumulating 7,166 yards of total offense (4,754 passing and 2,412 rushing) and 62 touchdowns (40 passing and 22 rushing).
— Ken Sugiura (@ksugiuraajc) January 28, 2017
But at 5 feet 11 and having run the Yellow Jackets’ triple option offense, NFL teams weren’t really interested in his passing abilities. The sub-4.4 seconds he ran the 40-yard dash in, though? That got their attention, in addition to a documented knack playmaking at a high level of college play.
It was reminiscent of about five years prior, when some of the bigger-name schools (Miami, USC, Alabama) wanted Thomas as a defensive back.
Thomas, of course, chose Georgia Tech to play quarterback and it worked out well. Just not well enough to convince NFL braintrusts he could play quarterback in the pros.
The better part of 10 months he’s spent as Steelers property and as a full-time receiver have left Thomas, he said, with a much higher comfort level with the position and with the team’s scheme.
Thomas admits there were growing pains at first; he wasn’t at all prepared to be an NFL receiver at first. But he now declares himself ready.
“It takes a guy a little bit of time to learn the intricacies of wide receiver because we ask the guys to learn so much,” Drake said. “Guys have to understand and know the whole offense and learn every position because we will put them in every spot. He is growing, and we will push him to grow. Hopefully as we get going into training camp he will develop his ability to help us in some form or fashion.”
Thomas has also taken reps returning kicks and punts at times – which might be his quickest path to the field.
With the offseason departures of Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers, there would seem to be a slight opening for some new blood on the receiving corps for the 2018 Steelers 53-man roster. If Thomas shows continued progress and proves capable on special teams, who knows?
“It just all depends and comes down to what I do, what they want to see from me,” Thomas said. “I’m just going out there trying to take advantage of each day and progress.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.