Back in 1994, when Urban Meyer was the wide receivers coach at Colorado State, he went after a junior college wideout named Keyshawn Johnson. "We had a few conversations," says Johnson. "It didn't lead to much, but I was nice to him." Johnson chose USC, but a generation later Meyer is back in the Johnson family business, and it's paying off.
Johnson's nephew Michael Thomas is a 6'3", 210-pound junior receiver at Ohio State who's projected as an early-round NFL talent. (He also has a pinch of the family flair as indicated by his Twitter handle: @cantguardmike.) Thomas bloomed late, only developing as an FBS recruit after a senior season in which he led the state with 1,656 yards receiving for Woodland Hills Taft in San Fernando Valley, Calif., in 2010. Uncle Keyshawn worked the phones to get his nephew noticed by premier Pac-12 schools, but USC, Cal and Washington all passed. "I told them, 'Either I'm stupid or I'm dumb,'" Johnson says. " 'I don't know what you all are seeing.'"
Thomas instead went to Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, a prep school, where he caught balls from future Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones. He followed Jones to Columbus, playing limited snaps as a freshman and redshirting his sophomore year. Everything clicked last season, when Thomas led the team with 54 catches, emerging as a technical route runner with sure hands.
Thomas's highlight moment came when he hauled in a 13-yard touchdown pass from receiver Evan Spencer on a trick play in the waning seconds of the first half of the College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama. Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who passed on Thomas as USC's coach, heard more about it later. " 'See,'" Johnson says he told Kiffin a few days after the game, " 'you would still have your job at USC if you'd have listened.'"