Thompson key part of Huskies’ surprising ‘D’

SEATTLE — Shaq Thompson was one of the most heralded recruits the Washington football program has landed since head coach Steve Sarkisian arrived in Seattle.

Thompson was to be the next in a line of hard-hitting safeties who have cycled through the Huskies’ program, but one with a unique blend of size and athleticism. Then something happened on Thompson’s way to becoming the next Lawyer Milloy or Dashon Goldson.

Washington realized he fit best at linebacker.

So far, the move has turned out to be the correct choice for the 15th-ranked Huskies.

“Just overall he’s done such a great job. He’s just plugged in as a football player,” Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “He studies, he wants to be good and to be a good player you have to do those things, not just physical ability.”

Thompson is coming off the most productive game of his college career, recording a career-high 13 tackles in the Huskies’ 31-13 win over Arizona last Saturday. It’s the kind of production Washington (4-0, 1-0 Pacific-12 Conference) hoped to get from Thompson when the Huskies decided he was no longer going to be a hybrid nickel back but a true linebacker.

The position switch makes Thompson unique. He’s got the size and hitting mentality of a linebacker, but also possesses the speed and coverage awareness of a defensive back. He’s so versatile that many fans wondered his freshman season why Thompson wasn’t being used on special teams as a returner or at running back, positions where he was a high school standout.

While Thompson has adjusted to what the Huskies want him to be, Wilcox has adjusted his plans to make things simpler for Thompson. Last season, Thompson swapped sides of the defense based on the offensive alignment. It sometimes left him thinking too much at the snap, which cost him a split-second in reaction time.

Wilcox made the change in the offseason to keep Thompson on one side of the field and take away the constant shifts.

“What really helped was probably staying on the same side, especially against up-tempo teams,” Thompson said. “Instead of moving around you just get the call and know your assignment and execute the play.”

Against Arizona, Thompson always seemed to be in the right spot. Wilcox said the way the defenses were called funneled the ball carrier toward Thompson and the result was the best statistical day of his career.

Arizona was the fourth straight up-tempo offense the Huskies have faced. The major change comes this weekend at No. 5 Stanford. The Cardinal utliize a bruising power running attack, which this season has been complemented by a successful deep passing game. Thompson said it’ll be strange to actually have the time to huddle this week.

“It’ll probably mess up our tempo because we’re used to going fast,” he said. “But you know, we’ve got to keep playing ball. You never know, they might come out and go up-tempo. We just have to stay prepared.”

Thompson’s play is part of a defensive effort that is getting little recognition because of what the Huskies’ offense has done in the first month. But the Huskies are No. 4 in the country in scoring defense, giving up just 10.4 points per game. They are second in pass efficiency defense (77.83), fifth in red zone defense (60 percent), ninth in yards passing allowed per game (156.8 yards) and 13th in overall total defense (288.8 yards per game).

An underwhelming schedule has helped Washington’s numbers look impressive, but being ranked in the Top 15 of anything defensively just two years ago would have been considered ludicrous since the Huskies were one of the worst defenseive teams in the country.

“It really doesn’t matter about the recognition, honestly,” Thompson said. “It’s about us just playing defense and playing as a family.”

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