The days between his first NFL reception, a little nondescript five-yarder against Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2011, when he injured his ankle, until Thursday night. From two lost seasons to five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns against the defending Super Bowl champions.
“I know it was 54 weeks in the training room. I’ve said that. I know that number," Thomas said after Denver's 49-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. “A lot of early mornings, a lot of late nights. I’ve told people in my family, I think when you go through something like that, it probably changes you in some ways, but I always felt like I had the ability to contribute in this league, to have an impact."
In an offense with plenty of star power to go around, Thomas is suddenly -- having been sprung on the world in the nationally televised season opener -- the guy who might present the biggest riddle for opposing defensive coordinators. A former Portland State basketball player who played just one season of football at the school, Thomas is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds of matchup nightmare waiting to happen.
He is too big for safeties and too fast for linebackers. He is the weapon in the middle of the field quarterback Peyton Manning will find plenty of use for in whatever becomes of this season. And because Thomas played so little in the previous two seasons -- just nine games combined, with that one catch before Thursday's effort and 26 times as a game-day inactive, including playoffs -- there is really no scouting report on him beyond what he just did against the Ravens.
Asked how he thought defenses would play Thomas now, Manning said, “It would be an interesting question. I am not sure how they will answer it, or if they will, but it will be interesting to see how teams play Julius all season. He is a big guy. He definitely will make teams have a conversation, and that is what you want."
It also allowed Manning to test the variety of options in the offense early Thursday. With the Ravens pushing coverage to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, Manning’s first three scoring passes went to Julius Thomas (twice) and Andre Caldwell.
That forced the Ravens to spread their defensive resources a little thinner than perhaps they had planned and left a little space for the others to work. In the first half, for example, Demaryius Thomas had one catch for 13 yards. After Manning moved the ball around a bit to Julius Thomas and some others, he could then come back to Demaryius Thomas for four catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
“Demaryius caught both touchdowns in a blitz," Manning said. “To get them in his hands and find the seam, it’s nighty-night. … Any way for you to get the ball in those guys' hands, that’s what you want to do."
While the Broncos entered the night with people talking about the big three in the passing game or the greatest receiving trios in league history compared to the potential of Demaryius Thomas, Decker and Welker, Julius Thomas might have opened far more options for them moving forward.
“You just want to be a part of something like this," Julius Thomas said. “It felt good. It felt really good, a long time coming. But I have to say, I thought it would be worth it the whole time I was trying to come back, and it’s going to be."