DENVER — Just over one year ago at Sports Authority Field, on a night very similar to Sunday's, Julius Thomas made his debut as a legitimate offensive threat.
During the Broncos' home opener against the Ravens in 2013, Thomas surpassed his career stats. In fact, he demolished his previous career highs with five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
With seven catches for 104 yards and a career-high three touchdowns on Sunday against the Colts, he proved that he is a big-time playmaker and that his 2013 Pro Bowl season was no anomaly.
He's here to stay.
"I've talked about it this offseason, how much more comfortable I am and with that comfort comes confidence," Thomas said. "I've been really excited for this season to start because I've been working, I've been improving. Our coaches have done a great job of getting me ready to go."
"I just want to see how much better I can get. I want to see how many opportunities I can [have] to help my team win. I'm going to continue to keep trying to get better, keep pushing myself because I don't think I've reached my limit yet."
Postgame, Thomas was asked about his first touchdown. With three scores, he had to take a couple seconds to recall what exactly happened on the play. It's understandable; he had a busy night as he tied Shannon Sharpe's franchise record for tight ends with three touchdowns.
"On Wednesday you're always saying, 'Man, look at this game plan. There's five touchdowns,'" Thomas said. "It doesn't always happen but the first one was a play just down in the low red. [That's] something that we do a lot of. [I] was able to just cross that SAM linebacker's face."
The 6-foot-5, 250 pound "monster," as Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano called him, was virtually impossible to cover 1-on-1. He sprinted past Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman for his first six points and for his second score he got the better of linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and took the ball downfield for a 35-yard touchdown, getting just inside the pylon to put the Broncos up 17-0.
Lining up against LaRon Landry on third and goal, Thomas capped off his career night with a third score. With a quick cut, he seemingly strolled into the end zone with no opposition.
"If you want to be a playmaker and you want to be one of the best players at your position, you can't allow yourself to be covered in man coverage," he said. "He was playing pretty tight press coverage. He gave me the right signal and was able to get a third touchdown."
Red zone 1-on-1s are a consistent chunk of practices and Thomas always excels. With speed, strength and his height, he often gets the better of his teammates. Sunday, his hard work came to fruition. Thomas believes that when a player is in man coverage, "you have to win."
"It's like backyard football. It's your little brother, your cousin," Thomas said. "I don't believe that you should be able to be covered one on one. When I get those opportunities, Peyton [Manning] did a great job of delivering me the ball. Those guys held up, up-front. We were able to execute well."
Manning said no matter what defense they're facing, he always works to get Thomas the ball. Thomas had seven receptions and was targeted eight times. He was consistent and in a game that was a bit sloppy from the offense with a few dropped passes. Thomas was reliable, just as he has been all offseason.
"I just really think he can be a match-up problem for certain defenses but a couple of good calls by Adam [Gase] — the third down, the one down there by the end zone," Manning said. "Good call, man to man, Julius beat him on the crossing route then the long one got him man to man again. It's tough to cover a guy who runs as well as he does.
"Then the third down was an audible when we got man again and he ran a good route. So good game by him, good start. I think all the work he put in to this offseason paid off tonight for him."
Thomas' lone mistake of the game was his inability to control the Colts' onside kick and Andy Studebaker pounced on it, giving the Colts the ball.
After his first score of the night, Thomas found a familiar face in the stands. His father, Greg, played wide receiver at the University of the Pacific until he suffered a torn meniscus and retired.
Thomas threw the ball to his father and, though the pass was a bit low and Thomas readily admits he's "definitely no Peyton Manning" his father reached over the bar and caught the ball that put the Broncos up 7-0. It was a nice grab and Thomas laughed about it saying, "Maybe he had a little Thomas in him today."
"It doesn't matter where he's at, he's easy to find," Thomas said. "He makes it down to that rail somehow, someway. He's got his arms up and I'm like 'I don't know if I can make this throw.' So I gave it a toss over there. He made a good catch so I think he may still have those hands he was telling me about when I was a kid."
He considered sending the balls from his second and third scores to his dad, but he was too exhausted to give his dad two more souvenirs from his big game.
If Sunday night's game was any indication of what's in store for Thomas this season, his dad is going to have to clear some shelf space for a lot of footballs.