You spent a long time coaching in college. How did the opportunity come about to jump to the NFL?**
"When I was coaching at Wyoming I used to come down here. I knew Gary Kubiak – we worked together at Texas A&M. So Gary would let me come in and watch training camp and I got to meet Alex Gibbs. I started using a lot of his zone schemes when I was a coordinator and as a line coach. He got a job with the Falcons and I got a phone call from him that he was going to be going to Atlanta. Around the same time, Greg Knapp was going there as the offensive coordinator. I had known Greg since we were in college together. So it was kind of like the perfect storm. Both Alex and Greg were going to be on that staff and both of them knew me and wanted me to join them, so it was a no brainer."
Did it feel like a different experience jumping to the NFL?
"It was football. The biggest change is you're not monitoring classes, you're not having to recruit. You're drafting, not recruiting. And you have professionals. You get to deal with the best in the world, not just the best in your area of the country at that age."
With your background in the offensive line, do you see that as more crucial to the tight end position, with the intricacies of blocking?
"It's something that's a lost art with tight ends because most of them, their backgrounds are different than they were five, seven, 10 years ago. Now they're all former quarterbacks, former receivers, former basketball players who become tight ends. You rarely have a guy who was a linebacker, or a guy who was a tight end all through high school and college. So [blocking is] something that's totally foreign to them. You really have to go back to square one and start with the most basic fundamentals and work your way through it. But the thing is, they're also athletic and smart. They can usually handle it."
Is there less emphasis on coaching the passing game?
"Not at all. There's always details. It doesn't matter, who you have and how long he's been playing receiver. You go from being a receiver, an X or a Z receiver, and then you come to play tight end – that's a much different route tree. You have a whole lot more traffic, your vision is different, the ball gets to you quicker. It's a whole different world, moving inside to play tight end than outside where you have all the open space and territory."
With the evolving nature of the position, how do you manage all the different types of athletes and different styles?
"Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. The key is to, as early as you can, identify what those are in all aspects with all your players in your room. Make your weakness your strength. If you can do A, B and C really well then let's worry about D, E, F. Let's really focus on those and make those better without ignoring the things you do well. Let's make you a whole tight end. Everybody hates the term "pass-catching tight end" or "blocking tight end." I don't believe we have either of those on this team. We have whole tight ends, guys that can do all three. They can pass protect, run block and run routes."
Take me back to 2011 when Julius Thomas and Virgil Green were drafted. What was your first impression of them?
"There's a certain thing you have to do when you go work these guys out on their campus to get a feel for them. It's not an easy process that I put them through. It's a full eight-hour day, sometimes longer, with film and chalk talks and field work and everything else. And I thought I had a very good feel for what those guys could do as young players.
"You can see that they're athletes from going to the combine and watching them on tape. But to see them mentally – are they mature enough to handle it? You can get a great gauge of that and how the learn, how they retain information and apply what they they've been taught and how fast they can turn it around."
After watching Julius Thomas work through his injuries in his first two years, what was it like to see him blossom last year?
"It was strange, I was going back and in my write up with Julius (as a rookie), I said because he doesn't have a great football background – he has no football background basically – I thought it would take him about three years to grasp it. And I knew he could do it because he's such a tremendous athlete and he's smart, he's mature. But I thought it was about a three-year learning curve. And last year I find out I should have played the lottery because that's how it worked out (laughing).
Now, the thing to his credit is when he was injured, he wasn't taking time off. He was in here, learning football, studying football. He was even running the scout team for us on defense just to learn more about football and not just his position, but the entire game in general. That's a huge credit to him. When he had the good success last year, obviously it was like yeah, I think he's back on schedule and this is the player we thought that we drafted. Now the big challenge for him and me is to do it again."
Despite his great year, he says you still push him as hard as anyone does. What else can you get out of him?
"He's scratching the surface. There's a lot more to get out of him. You have to keep pushing, pushing the envelope. The best thing about him is that he wants to be pushed. I'm sure he probably appreciates some tough love once in a while, a couple of harsh words to kind of get him back on track. It's a very emotional game sometimes. I get emotional with him, he gets emotional with me. At the end of the day, he's getting better every day, and that's all he and I both want."
You've worked with some great tight ends in Alge Crumpler and Antonio Gates. Where does Thomas fit in right now?
"He's different. Alge Crumpler was probably the most instinctive tight end I ever coached. One of the better all-around tight ends. There's nobody like him anymore in this league. He's a dinosaur. So that being said, that's not a fair comparison. Antonio Gates was a number one tight end recruit coming out of high school and was offered and signed a football scholarship to Michigan State. Whereas Julius had never seen a helmet until after he already had his bachelor's degree at Portland State and decided to go back and get his master's and play some football, for one year in the Big Sky. They all had different backgrounds, so it's hard to compare them accurately. The things they all had in common is great passion for the game, great students, and they can certainly take coaching."