By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
The hype was astounding. The anticipation was endless. The expectations were borderline ridiculous.
And yet, Shaq Thompson somehow managed to be everything the Washington Huskies and their fans have hoped for, and more.
“He’s been great for us,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “And I think his best days are still ahead of him. He’s an awesome kid.”
On Tuesday, the prized freshman phenom was finally allowed to speak with the local media about his whirlwind first season that saw him force his way onto the field and into the starting lineup in a hybrid linebacker/safety specially created to exploit his immense talents and limitless athleticism. Oh and there was that whole summer in the Boston Red Sox organization and the strikeout struggles that made him the butt of many a baseball fan’s jokes.
But football is the focus for Thompson at the moment. He’s eight games into a first year of college football where he’s shown extended glimpses of the potential that made him the top safety recruit in the country coming out of Grant High School in Sacramento. And he’s done it at a different position than expected.
Thompson has 51 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and an interception playing a hybrid position where he plays more like a linebacker at times and then like a safety in other situations.
“It gives us the best chance to win right now,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “Shaq’s got a really good skill set, he’s a big guy, he’s still learning to play the game. We’re trying to put him in spots where he can defend a lot of the field and makes tackles in the open field, that’s where we’ve tried to put him.”
Not many players have the size and the speed to play such a diverse position. It takes a special athlete. And then to do it at 18 years old in your first year of college football?
“Look at him, the kid’s a freak,” senior Justin Glenn said of Thompson’s 6-3, 225-pound frame. “He’s doing just fine. Shaq came in ready physically. When you come into college, it’s not that easy to transition for everybody. But Shaq is obviously the exception.”
Thompson had no plans of playing this position, or playing at all. Sure he wanted to play and figured he would play, but he also thought he’d have to beat out Glenn and Sean Parker at safety to do so.
“It was surprising for me because I thought I was going to come in and play safety behind Justin and Sean,” Thompson said. “When Coach Wilcox said he was going to try me at hybrid/linebacker, ‘I was like thank god, now I can get on the field with these guys.’ I really like it.”
Thompson wasn’t totally unfamiliar to the demands of playing near the line of scrimmage.
“I played middle linebacker when I was younger,” he said.
Of course, this hybrid position isn’t necessarily permanent. With Glenn graduating, Thompson could move back to his true, natural position.
“That’s a possibility, yes,” Wilcox said.
There will be no switching to being a single-sport athlete for Thompson though. He plans to continue playing both football and baseball. He will go back to the Red Sox minor league ranks for the second straight summer.
“The baseball experience was crazy,” he said. “It was rough as you can tell.”
Rough might be a kind of way of describing it.
Drafted by the Red Sox in the 18th round of the 2012 draft despite only playing one year of baseball — his senior season in high school —– since sixth grade, Thompson reported to extended spring training in Florida and then eventually to the Gulf Coast League. He started and played 13 games, and never got a hit. In 39 official at-bats, he struck out 37 times. The only time he hit the ball out of the infield was in his final at-bat where he hit a line drive to right field that was caught.
“It taught me a lot,” Thompson said of baseball. “Everything good isn’t always going to come, you have to get used to failure.”
Thompson’s struggles made him an easy mark for the snarky stories in some sports blogs and on social media. He just shrugged it off.
“It inspired me,” he said. “To know there were a lot of people hating on me, it inspired me to keep playing.”
That experience prepared Thompson for last week’s game at California. Sure it was a homecoming of sorts with a dozen family and friends making the short trip to Berkeley to see him play. But Thompson had been committed to Cal for most of his senior season.
His late decision to instead sign with UW after assistant coach and top recruiter Tosh Lupoi left Cal for the Huskies did not make Thompson a popular man amongst Bears fans. He heard plenty of catcalls and comments.
He quieted some of the vitriol when he picked off a pass and had a nice return. It eventually led to the game-clinching touchdown for the Huskies. Thompson finished with seven tackles and two tackles for loss.
“The crowd was tough, but the players showed me a lot of love,” Thompson said. “I knew what I was going to get. But it’s life, you make your decisions and that’s how it goes.”