LANSING, Mich. (AP) -A year ago, Devin Thomas was a relatively unknown receiver just getting ready to crack the starting lineup at Michigan State.
This weekend, he's projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick, and he could be the first receiver chosen.
The meteoric rise came as a surprise to many, but not necessarily to Thomas.
He believed in his talent even while toiling in relative obscurity, and sometimes on the bench, in junior college and early in his two seasons with the Spartans.
``I always knew I had the ability,'' Thomas said this week between stops working out for NFL teams. ``I just needed the opportunity.''
Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, decided to skip his senior season with Michigan State after a standout junior year.
He set a single-season school record with 79 receptions for 1,260 yards and eight touchdowns. Thomas set a single-season Big Ten record with 1,135 yards on kickoff returns. Then he impressed scouts at the NFL combine, where he ran some of the fastest 40-yard dash times among receivers.
Until this past year, Thomas struggled to catch and keep the attention of the football world.
Thomas attended Ann Arbor Huron and Canton (Mich.) high schools. He wound up at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, working to earn a shot at big-time college football.
Thomas landed at Michigan State before the 2006 season, part of a junior college recruiting wave by former Spartan coach John L. Smith. But Thomas didn't get much playing time during his first season as a Spartan, catching just six passes in his role as a backup or multiple wideout set receiver.
Thomas was stuck behind Matt Trannon and Kerry Reed, both of whom were signed by NFL teams. New opportunities arose when Trannon and Reed departed Michigan State and other receivers either were temporarily suspended or shifted to defense by first-year coach Mark Dantonio.
Thomas quickly emerged as a go-to guy for the Spartans with a variety of downfield patterns, bubble screens and reverses to maximize his number of touches.
Thomas says his detour-filled path to the NFL will help keep him focused and on track once he gets there. He says he has made it to the NFL draft ``going through the back way'' rather than as a highly publicized, hotly recruited can't-miss prospect from early on in a career.
``It keeps that chip on my shoulder. A lot of guys tried to write me off,'' Thomas said. ``Now, all of this has happened so fast. It's been really wild. It's really going from nothing to something.''
One potential knock against Thomas is his short resume, featuring just one solid season of major college production.
Gil Brandt, the NFL's scouting consultant and former personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, said earlier this month Thomas could get drafted between the 11th and 20th picks.
``I'm pretty sure he'll go in the first,'' Brandt said. ``But he's got a lot of learning to do after playing in junior college and having one season in which he came on like gangbusters at Michigan State. He's a big, fast target, and he can really help teams out by returning kicks, too.''
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AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed to this report.

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