Before the New Orleans Saints drafted two Ohio State Buckeyes in the second round of last month's draft, Sean Payton turned to an old friend with some pretty good insight on them -- Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
"We kind of grew up in the profession together," recalled Meyer, who was an assistant coach at Illinois State from 1988-1989 and Colorado State from 1990-1995, while Payton was beginning his coaching career at San Diego State and Indiana State.
Payton said he and Meyer got to know each other while recruiting the same areas, and they've stayed in touch ever since.
"I spent some time with him this year at the combine. And I just have a tremendous respect for a guy that has gone up through the ranks the way he has, and he's a winner," said Meyer, who said he remembers the young Payton as a "football junkie" who took his game to the next level when he latched on with Jon Gruden and the Philadelphia Eagles' staff in 1997.
Meyer said he would visit Payton with the Eagles while he was recruiting the area as an assistant coach with Notre Dame.
"I've never seen anyone outwork him," Meyer said. "We kind of grew up in college, and then he got around Jon Gruden and it was an opportunity for him to really grow as a coach."
Meyer said he thought both players were worthy of first-round draft picks.
"I've been fortunate to coach some first-round talent, and I believe they both were," Meyer said. "I think they're in a great place. I think they've got an excellent coach and coaching staff and tradition there, obviously at quarterback, I love watching them play. So I'm really happy they landed at a quality place."
Thomas 'a bit immature' at first
Neither Thomas nor Bell was an instant success at Ohio State, however. Thomas was actually redshirted as a sophomore after struggling as a freshman.
"He came here and was immature. Always a good person, but just a little bit immature. (Thomas) thought he was working hard, but he really wasn't," Meyer said. "He probably thought he was a little better than he was. He didn't know the offense, he was making too many mistakes, he was an excuse maker. And that's not an attack on Mike. That's a typical young player that maybe was a great player in high school, bit it's just a little harder in college."
But Meyer credited Thomas for the way he responded. And he credited both Thomas' father and his uncle -- Keyshawn Johnson -- for helping to get him on track academically and on the field.
"Then he went on a two-year run where he was exceptional. Exceptional in the classroom, graduated with a very good GPA, and became obviously our go-to receiver," Meyer said. "So I love Michael. His best attribute is that when he gets challenged, he's an extreme competitor. So I love guys like that."
Meyer said the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Thomas is indeed the kind of big target who can make catches in the red zone and in traffic that New Orleans needed after releasing Marques Colston.
"His ball skills are a 10 out of 10, aggressive to the ball, high points the ball. That's why he was so good down in the red zone for us," Meyer said. "He's learned to play big. He was one of those receivers, a little bit like his uncle, that once he learned to play big ... he's not a finesse player at all. That's not his game, and when he tries to be he's really average.
"When he plays to his size and strength, I think he's exceptional. So he really grew up as far as learning how to play with the physical-ness that he's been blessed with."
Bell has a 'corner skill set'
Bell played the field safety position, which is practically a cornerback position for the Buckeyes.
"He's got a corner skill set," Meyer said. "He played off-man coverage, basically on the No. 2 receiver all year. And (defensive assistant) Greg Schiano when I first hired him said, 'I think the most underrated guy on our defense was Vonn Bell.' Just because that's not an easy job description."
Bell (5-11, 199) started for two years after he battled his own freshman immaturity, according to Meyer.
"He was a little bit like Mike Thomas, a little bit immature, did not practice with the same intensity that he ended up being. But he became one of our best practice players," Meyer said. "Just a typical maturity that takes place, especially with a good person. And that's exactly what he is, a good person, a great family, grew up fast. And him and (former Buckeyes safeties coach Chris Ash) really hit it off, and those two had an incredible working relationship."