By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
SEATTLE – Usage of Shaq Thompson would indicate he was built where they make those multifunctional Swiss Army knives.
Washington’s freshman linebacker, er safety, er cornerback, spends Saturday afternoons banging on running backs and chasing receivers.
Thompson lines up on the line of scrimmage, to the left or right. He drops into zone coverage. He’ll stand across from a slot receiver, someone built smaller and intended to be faster than Thompson’s 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame will allow him to move.
He’s a do-it-all hybrid who has opened up the Huskies’ defensive scheme, breathing further speed and flexibility into each passing week.
“It’s probably not 100 percent fair to him because he’s playing in our base group, he’s playing nickel, he returns kicks, he’s on punt; I mean, the guy’s been here since August,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said.
Thompson’s had a team-leading seven tackles and blocked a field-goal attempt against Portland State. He’s tied for fourth on the team in tackles three games into the season.
“I think the game has started to slow down for him a little bit,” Wilcox said. “Not that it was ever too fast, (but) we’re asking him to do a lot.”
Just about everything except talk to the media. Thompson falls under Washington’s “newcomer” policy as a freshman and is not made available to reporters.
Instead of talking, he’s busy letting his legs do the work since a careening commitment process coming out of high school. Thompson switched his commitment — becoming an ever more hollow word — from California to Washington, just after Washington defensive line coach and manic recruiter Tosh Lupoi left Cal to take a job with the Huskies.
Wilcox coached Thompson’s older brother, current Denver Broncos cornerback Syd’Quan, when they were at Cal. That also helped Washington.
So, here he is, arguably Washington’s most important defensive player six weeks into his college career.
“He’s got a real maturity about himself,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I think he’ll become a natural team leader quicker than most would assume.”
Sarkisian pointed to Thompson’s minor league baseball experience as a possible influence on his early mental calm contained in a grown man’s physique. Thompson played in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League over the summer in the Boston Red Sox system.
His performance was terrible: 0-for-39 batting with 37 strikeouts and eight walks. Much of the missed backstory was that Thompson played baseball his senior year at Grant Union High School in Sacramento after not playing the prior three.
Since he arrived on the UW football field, Thompson’s ability to handle the layers of assignment Washington has given him has impressed Wilcox. The coach isn’t sure it’s the result of the baseball experience.
“I think it probably has just as much to do with the kind of guy he is,” Wilcox said. “I don’t know if just because you play minor league baseball, it helps your maturity. If it does, we’re going to send all of them to minor league baseball.”
Thompson arrived at Washington as the top-rated safety in the country. The Huskies moved him to what can best be called a nickel defensive spot. But, really, he’s in his own position in the Huskies’ 3-4 defensive scheme.
He announced himself by making the first tackle of Washington’s season when he hit San Diego State running back Adam Muema and limited him to a 3-yard gain. Thompson later blocked a field-goal attempt against Portland State, allowing Tre Watson to pick up the ball and score.
“The blocked field goal is just a glimpse of what we’re going to see out of this guy,” Sarkisian said.
Thompson ran for 1,134 yards and 15 touchdowns his senior year of high school. Despite Washington’s hindered running game, Sarkisian said he will not move Thompson to offense.
The freshman has room to grow. Wilcox would like to see better hand technique and for Thompson to “train his eyes” for improved recognition of play development. The Huskies are also trying to balance exploiting Thompson’s physical ability with avoiding a mental overload that could slow his reactions.
For now, a keen football sense on the field coupled with a bevy of physical talent have Thompson keying Washington’s defense.
“As the season goes on, he’s just going to get better and better,” senior cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “He’s going to be a beast.”