If Justin Thomas’ experience is anything like Keenan Reynolds’, the former Georgia Tech star would be wise to start taking extra care of his body.
Signed to the New Orleans Saints’ roster earlier this week, Thomas is beginning his transition from quarterback to wide receiver. Reynolds went through the process last year. He was a star quarterback at Navy before the Baltimore Ravens drafted him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft with the plan to turn him into a wide receiver.
Among the many lessons learned that perhaps Thomas will soon realize, too — playing wide receiver is taxing work.
“As an option quarterback, in practice you’re running, but you’re not running super full speed,” he said. “As a receiver, I’m running super full speed every play to get open. Stopping and starting, cutting takes a toll on your body.”
More than a few similarities connect Reynolds and Thomas. The two played in highly similar offenses at Tech and Navy and were gifted playmakers. Both played quarterback throughout their careers and had no experience at other positions. They don’t possess ideal size for wide receiver; Reynolds is 5-foot-10, Thomas is 5-9. They even share the same agent, Che Mock.
Speaking by phone this week from the Ravens’ complex in Maryland, Reynolds described a slow, difficult process.
“I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was,” Reynolds said. “I was in for a rude awakening when I got here.”
The physical demands of the position are part of it. He said he needed to get in shape to play wide receiver, particularly the running. He has handled it by “prehabbing” (strengthening a part of the body to help prevent an injury) and being more conscious of what his body needs to get ready for practice and to recover, such as gaining strength or flexibility.
Actually learning to play the position was the other challenge. While his competitors at the position had been beating cornerbacks’ press coverage, breaking off routes and finding holes in zone coverages since high school or earlier, Reynolds was learning those skills in an NFL camp.
Further, he was learning the Ravens’ offensive scheme and plays and just trying to remember where to line up and how to read defensive coverages. He said it took him until the end of training camp before he could hear a play called in the huddle and not have to think twice about his positioning or assignment.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it took a lot of time to really work on it,” he said. “I’m still working on it today, just trying to get better and better at my craft every day. It was definitely a process, and you can’t really skip any steps on that.”
Reynolds’ solutions were nothing extraordinary — repetition and learning from mistakes.
“Because I especially remember getting yelled at for messing up,” Reynolds said. “That experience is what ingrained that in my memory. You try to take it one day at a time, one bite at a time and not try to learn the whole playbook in one night.”
There also was technique to learn — footwork, route running and catching the ball. He has regularly used football throwing machines to catch passes at different angles to train himself for the variety of catches he has to make on routes.
He was disappointed when he didn’t make the 53-man roster at the end of the preseason and was signed to the practice squad. But he tried to optimize his work on the scout team by working on different techniques as he ran the plays of coming Ravens opponents and asked the defensive backs for feedbacks. He said the continued work made a difference during the season.
“It’s what you make of it,” he said. “If you’re going to poke along and pout about it, you’re not going to get the most out of it.”
Reynolds was promoted to the active roster for the final game of the 2016 season, although he did not play.
Reynolds’ advice for Thomas?
“Just don’t get discouraged,” he said. “Each and every day, find one thing to get better at. Again, don’t try to digest it all in one bite. One day at a time, and then you’ll look up and you’ll be where you want to be. I’m still doing that. I’m nowhere near where I want to be. I’m trying to take my own advice.”