NCAA

Decker, Thomas flourish under Manning

Decker, Thomas flourish under Manning

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) They were frustrated a year ago when Tim Tebow didn't target them very often - and often missed his targets when he did.

Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas have flourished with Peyton Manning under center, combining for 179 catches, 2,498 yards and 23 touchdowns this season.

They're two of the biggest reasons the Denver Broncos (13-3) haven't lost in three months heading into their AFC divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens (11-6) on Saturday.

Having Manning around can do wonders for young receivers, but only if they work hard and stay healthy, the two things that allowed this pair of third-year pros to put aside a history of injuries and have bust-out seasons.

``Anytime that you're around Peyton, either you get better or you don't play,'' veteran receiver Brandon Stokley said. ``He demands that you put a lot of work in on the practice field, demands attention to detail, consistency. And if you do those things, you become a good football player.''

Manning said if anything surprised him in his first season in Denver, it was how quickly he developed a rhythm with his new receivers.

``I would agree that the rapport with the receivers has come probably quicker than I thought,'' Manning said, noting you just never know how - or how fast - the timing and chemistry will come together.

Especially with a new team, new coaches, new city, new targets.

Decker started 13 games during the 2011 season but caught just 14 passes after the Broncos dusted off the read-option offense to fit Tebow's unique skill set. Injuries limited Thomas to seven starts his first two seasons in Denver.

Last season, they combined for 76 catches and 13 TDs.

This season, they had a friendly game of one-upmanship going all season - ``Me and Deck are always competing against each other,'' Thomas noted. Add Manning to the mix with his pinpoint passes and, at times, equally sharp pointers, and Thomas and Decker thrived under his tutelage.

``Peyton came here for a reason. We didn't want to make him look bad and we didn't want to look bad when he's like, one of the best quarterbacks ever,'' Thomas said. ``So, we compete every week and we challenge ourselves just to try to be what he wants us to be, and we got better every week.''

Decker said that friendly competition between them was as big a reason for their breakout seasons as Manning's arrival was: ``We both want to be great and if he does something big, I want to do something big, and vice versa.''

Trying to outdo each other helped each one get better with Manning.

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Thomas is the biggest receiver Manning has ever played with. He became a household name last year despite playing in Denver's old ultra-conservative option offense. He had a monster final month of the season and then came that first play of overtime against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, when his 80-yard TD catch gave Denver its first postseason win since 2005.

Eight months after scoring the longest overtime touchdown in NFL playoff history, the big receiver burned the Steelers again by hauling in Manning's milestone 400th touchdown toss, turning a smoke screen at the line of scrimmage into a zigzagging 71-yard score and showing Manning just what he had to work with in Denver.

While others marvel at Thomas' size and speed or even his great hands, Stokley said it's actually the big man's footwork that's so impressive.

That's what's helped him make several spectacular touchdown catches this season, like the one against Cleveland last month in which he leapt high for a one-handed grab that he says was ``hands-down'' his best catch ever.

``People call that the Dwight Clark throw,'' Manning said of the iconic Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark touchdown that won the 1981 NFC title game for San Francisco. ``It's our ball or nobody's ball, but because of their height and their ability to jump you can make that throw.''

Decker, whose 6-3 frame isn't a thick as Thomas' but just as chiseled, had his own one-handed highlight of a touchdown catch that day.

This 1-2 punch wasn't much of one before this season, when Decker and Thomas kept taking turns getting hurt.

Thomas was dogged by a broken foot, sprained ankle, concussion, torn Achilles and fractured finger in his first two seasons. He was coming off yet another surgery, to remove pins in his left pinkie, when Manning signed in March, so it was up to Decker to get the Broncos' new QB acclimated to the Mile High City.

Decker would text Thomas back in Georgia, telling him about how he and Manning were sneaking onto high school football fields around Denver to work on routes.

``That's what I was thinking the whole time I was injured: I've got to catch up because I knew they were working a lot,'' Thomas said.

Those early sessions helped Manning regain his arm strength and rediscover his old form after a series of neck operations that sidelined him all of last season and led to his departure from Indy.

They were just as helpful for Decker, who was recovering from a sprained left knee he hurt in the playoffs.

All those hours together paid off. Decker led the Broncos with 13 TDs this season, and, like Thomas (1,434) had his first 1,000-yard season (1,064).

Decker also benefited from his first full training camp last summer. There was the lockout in 2011 and he was on the mend in 2010 after missing the last half of his senior season at Minnesota with a foot injury.

Stokley said Thomas and Decker have just the right attitude to mesh with Manning.

``Neither one is a prima donna receiver,'' Stokley said. ``These days that's nice to have guys that don't think they know it all, are willing to work, willing to listen.''

Complaining isn't in either one's DNA, but that's not to say they didn't get flustered last year.

``I went in to the receivers' room and talked to those guys, and they were frustrated,'' former Broncos great Rod Smith recently said. ``They were hurting, catching two balls thrown to them a game. I said, `Guys, that part, you don't get to control. You control when you come out of the huddle and how you run your route. You control that. You control blocking in the run game.'

``I said, `I know it stinks to be a receiver and not knowing if you're going to get the ball - ever. But what makes you a champion is when you go out there thinking it's coming to you anyway. And you go out there and you go to work.'''

Thomas and Decker took Smith's words to heart.

``He always talked about just go out and do what you can,'' Thomas said. ``You don't need many passes, but just go out and work hard and it will pay off.''

Has it ever.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

---

Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Twitter:http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Watch a George Mason walk-on receive a full scholarship

george_mason_usat.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

Watch a George Mason walk-on receive a full scholarship

There are not many videos better in this world than walk-on college athletes receiving a full-ride scholarship and their ensuing reaction. 

George Mason's men's basketball team gave everyone one of those emotional moments. Jack Tempchin, who's in his third year as a preferred walk-on for the Patriots, received the scholarship after Thursday's practice. 

His teammates reacted appropriately. 

On Twitter, the redshirt junior thanked his teammates, coaches and family who helped get him to this point. 

As a walk-on, Tempchin has only played in 16 games throughout his three years. Most of his minutes have been in garbage time of blowouts or to come in the game to pick-up a quick foul. Throughout those appearances, he's put up six points, four of them coming from the charity stripe. 

Gotta love when a player gets properly rewarded for their hard work and dedication. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

MORE NCAA NEWS:

Quick Links

Beal makes his case in win over Cavs

Beal makes his case in win over Cavs

The Washington Wizards beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-112 on Thursday night. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

1. Just before tip-off, the NBA announced it's 2019-20 All-Star starters and not included in the Eastern Conference backcourt was Bradley Beal. Boston's Kemba Walker and Atlanta's Trae Young instead got the honors.

Whether Beal knew that fact when he took the floor or not, he put in a performance against the Cavs that should add to his case for being a reserve. The two-time All-Star followed up a 38-point gem against the Heat with 36 points against Cleveland just one night later. He also had eight assists and shot 15-for-22 (68.2%) from the field and 4-for-8 from three.

Beal now has the fourth-most 30-point games in the NBA since the start of last season with 40 of them. Only James Harden (86) Gianiis (54) and Damian Lillard (45) have more.

This 30-point game helped the Wizards bounce back from a loss the night before in Miami. Washington is now 15-29 on the season and 5-5 in their last 10 games.

2. In his previous six games since returning from a quad injury, Davis Bertans had put up some solid numbers and shown flashes. Against the Cavs, though, he did what we saw him to much more often a few months ago when he was healthy.

Bertans not only lit a spark off the bench, but he did so in microwave fashion. He had 14 of his 17 points in the first half, including three consecutive threes in the second quarter to force a timeout as the Wizards' lead grew to 14. That marked a big turnaround after Washington trailed by as many as 12 in the first quarter.

Bertans helped lead a monster effort from the Wizards' bench as a whole. They outscored the Cavs' second unit, 59-34. The Wizards are second in the NBA in bench scoring and that is despite all of the injuries they have dealt with in recent months. Now that they are nearly whole, the bench is becoming even stronger.

 

3. The Thomas Bryant situation is getting more interesting as each game passes. He has now been back six games and has been kept between roughly between 12 and 21 minutes a night. He played 17 minutes against the Cavs and contributed nine points and three rebounds.

Bryant is a big man coming off a foot injury, so the Wizards have incentive to play it safe and maintain a minutes restriction. But it has now been nearly two weeks since he came back.

Is it as simple as a minutes limit or is Ian Mahinmi's improved play having a domino effect on Bryant? The more Bryant plays limited minutes, the more that could become evident, if this is indeed performance based. 

Mahinmi, by the way, had seven points, seven rebounds and played strong defense, helping the Wizards to hold Tristan Thompson to six points and three rebounds.

4. Much like last week when the Wizards saw the Pistons and Andre Drummond, watching this game was reminder that Kevin Love is reportedly available in trades. That begs the natural question of where he would fit, if he gets dealt soon, like before the Feb. 6 deadline.

Some might argue the Wizards as an option, given their best players are guards and Love would technically complement them well. Given his age and contract, however, it would probably be too much of a risk for the Wizards.

The Blazers seem like they could use him and the Raptors could also be interesting. He would also fit well with the Rockets, though they probably don't have enough trade assets to get him.

What about the Timberwolves? They have disappointed this year and need to find Karl-Anthony Towns some help. Love wouldn't be joining a contender, as he probably hopes to, but it could be an interesting story if he goes back to the team he started with. And him and Towns would be a tough duo to stop given how well they rebound and stretch the floor.

Speaking of Love, he had the viral moment of the night when he pretended to resuscitate Beal. 

5. Backup center Anzejs Pasecniks was back in the mix after missing two games due to a left ankle injury. And not only was he available, he actually got some burn.

Pasecniks played 15 minutes and scored four points to go along with three rebounds. So, even with Bryant and Bertans back from injury, and Johnathan Williams III still getting minutes, Pasecniks maintains a role in the rotation.

That could change once other players come back. Moe Wagner, in particular, will probably take minutes away from him at the backup center spot. But Pasecniks still hanging around in the rotation is a testament to him and the way he has played. No one predicted he would play this much of a factor this season.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

MORE WIZARDS NEWS: