The NCAA tournament is just beginning its front page dominance in the sports world this weekend as 68 teams are whittled down to the heavily hyped Final Four. Along for the ride are several hundred college players with hoop dreams at the pro level. USC's Jordan Cameron and Portland State's Julius Thomas had those same dreams, but they've traded them in for a chance to be tight ends in the NFL.
Hoping to follow in the successful switch from high tops to cleats made by the likes of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and most recently Jimmy Graham, Cameron and Thomas both committed themselves to football after beginning their college careers in basketball.
Cameron had a full ride at BYU on a basketball scholarship, but during his redshirt freshman year he found himself thinking a lot about football.
"I played a year and a half of high school football and I realized when I was playing basketball at BYU that I missed football and I had the opportunity to come play for coach Carroll at USC and I took full advantage of it," Cameron said.
First, Cameron transferred to Ventura junior college in California where as a tight end he caught 22 passes for 348 yards and five touchdowns helping Ventura to a conference title and win in the Southern California Bowl.
He then transferred to USC in the fall of 2008 and was moved to wide receiver where he served in a reserve role for two seasons. It wasn't until this past year when he was made a full-time tight end that he got involved in the Trojans' offense. Cameron had 16 catches for 126 yards and a touchdown.
Less than impressive stats for sure, but there's a reason why he was invited to the NFL combine.
"Potential," said Cameron. "I've got a lot of potential and some upside and I'm a tip of the iceberg kind of guy so we'll see. I wasn't productive in college and didn't do too much and I'm looking for any opportunity to play. I'll be grateful for whatever anyone wants to give me."
Cameron (6'5" 254) certainly helped his cause in Indianapolis. He ran a 4.53 40-time, put up 23 reps on the bench, leaped 37 ½ inches and had a broad jump of almost 10 feet (9'11").
"I think I'm pretty fast for my size and I can jump and bend pretty well. I can run routes and I think that separates me. I can be an asset at the next level."
His numbers are very much in line with the aforementioned Graham.
Graham played basketball for three years at the University of Miami before playing football his senior season. His production was also less than impressive, but he too ran a 4.53 at 6'6" and 260 pounds. A 38 ½ inch vertical and 10 foot broad jump along with a well-executed pro day helped Graham come off the board at the end of the third round where he was taken by the Saints.
With 11 catches for 70 yards and four touchdowns in the last four games of his rookie season, Graham has other NFL clubs looking for similar prospects.
That's why Cameron is forecast to come off the board at about the same time in what is largely considered to be a weak tight end class.
Portland State's Julius Thomas also only had one year of production. After playing four years of basketball for the Vikings and winning a pair of Big Sky conference titles, Thomas made use of his redshirt year as a fifth-year senior in football.
"The decision was made in 2007," he said. "Football has been my favorite sport my entire life. In high school I had a lot of success in basketball. They said don't play football, you'll get hurt and you are being given a scholarship be safe about it. I didn't really have an opportunity to play football in high school. And when I got to college it was always if I had my redshirt year left, then they would want let me go on and play football."
Thomas had 29 catches for 453 yards and a pair of scores in his only season of football in 2010. But he shined at the East-West Shrine game scoring all of the West team's points in a 25-8 loss with a five-yard touchdown catch and ensuing two-point conversion.
"It was a tremendous opportunity and I am really appreciative that they allowed me to go down there and play," Thomas said. "There is always that question coming from Portland State about never playing against any top talent. So going out against some of the people in the Shrine game was huge for my confidence. It was encouraging to know that I can play."
Thomas then took full advantage of an NFL combine invite posting a 4.64 40-time, 16 reps on the bench a 35 ½ inch vertical and a 9'3" broad jump.
"I talked to some of the NFL position coaches and they were telling me how I have the ability, but how I have a long ways to go to reach my potential and I think that is something teams are excited to hear about. I haven't really tapped out my potential and I still have a long ways to go."
Nevertheless the odds are very good that both Cameron and Thomas will have NFL homes come the end of April.