CHARLOTTE – Ian Thomas wasn't on the NFL's radar heading into his senior season at Indiana.
The NFL wasn't on Thomas' radar, either.
"It wasn't really in my vision. The first thing was getting a degree, however I could get it," Thomas said. "Then going through Indiana, I guess I developed into an NFL player. It wasn't really in my mindset at first."
Exactly how much of a late bloomer is Thomas?
Well, the rookie tight end, selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, didn't even appear in a major college media guide – much less a draft-related guide – in any substantive way until around this time last year.
Thomas played at Indiana the past two seasons after two years of junior college, but he didn't enroll in time to make the Hoosiers' media guide his first season. The bowl game media guide at the end of his first year did list his name on the roster, but he wasn't even mentioned in the season in review section for the tight end group.
Finally, prior to last season, his bio first appeared in a media guide, with the Hoosiers' spring guide featuring the fact that Thomas made two of his three catches in 2016 in Indiana's bowl game.
Thomas was too busy trying to earn a role at Indiana to think about the NFL. Until…
"I heard it from a couple of my coaches midway through the year, towards the last part of the year," Thomas said. "After that, I changed my mindset. I need to be a pro.
"I need to be better, eat better, do better. After that, my whole everything changed."
That's not to say that Thomas wasn't a dreamer – just the opposite, in fact. As his well-documented journey reveals, there were other dreams to conscientiously chase before Thomas turned his attention to the NFL.
In a little more than a year, both of his parents died of natural causes before his 10th birthday. Already facing difficult surroundings in Baltimore even with the support of both parents, Thomas avoided being put in the "system" when an older sibling stepped up to become his legal guardian. He graduated from high school, but it seemed like college sports – or really college at all – weren't in the cards. His high school coach, however, got Thomas a look from the Nassau Community College coach, and Thomas took advantage of another break and developed into one of the nation's top junior college tight ends over the next two years.
Several schools, including Indiana, took note, but Thomas said he wasn't quite ready for the Big Ten – academically or athletically. Late in the process he discovered that some of his credits wouldn't transfer to Indiana, so rather than spending the summer of 2016 getting up to speed on the field, he had to speed up to get eligible just in time for the season (thus his absence from the media guide).
"I ended up needing two more classes, but I was able to take those classes in the summer and got to Indiana right before camp started. That was another stressful thing," Thomas said. "I wasn't ready for Big Ten football…but having my family behind me was what pushed me forward. That's what I had in my mind as I went through."
Once at Indiana, exposed to a major college strength and conditioning program, Thomas began to develop the prototypical body for the modern NFL tight end. It took him longer to build a body of work that caught the NFL's collective eye, just as it will take time for him to round into form as a pro.
Some are already tabbing him as the heir apparent to Greg Olsen, but if that ever happens, it will take time. Patience and perseverance have paid off for Thomas before.
"If that time comes, then I'll have to step up and do what I have to do," Thomas said during Carolina's recent rookie minicamp. "But in the meantime, I'm just going to do what I have to do to learn the playbook and just get everything down."