Washington's Shaq Thompson making case as potential two-way star
SEATTLE -- When Shaq Thompson watched UCLA linebacker Myles Jack trot out with the Bruins' offense, take a handoff and burst through the offensive line against Arizona State last November, Thompson, Washington's hardest-hitting linebacker, had one thought: Hey, I know how to do that, too.
"He beat me to it," said Thompson, a rising junior. "He started the trend, I'm just hopping on it."
Though he's made his living on defense for two seasons in Seattle, Thompson, a 6-foot-2, 231-pounder, has plenty of offensive experience. Going back to his days at Grant High in Sacramento, what stands out more than his 57 tackles as a senior are his 1,134 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 120 carries. Jack, a rising sophomore, made headlines across the country last fall for his old-school, two-way style after starting 11 games at linebacker and one at running back. (UCLA's depth was depleted, but Jack's offensive ability turned out to be a weapon that lasted longer than one game.) Pac-12 coaches named him both offensive and defensive freshman of the year for his versatility, a rarity in this era of specialization.
Six hundred miles north in Seattle, Thompson liked the concept of carrying the ball again, but he was mostly joking when he walked into new coach Chris Petersen's office and floated the idea. To his surprise, Petersen perked up.
"I'm from where Shaq's from, I grew up there, so I've known about Shaq a long time," Petersen said. "He's just a good football player. Offense, defense, he just plays good football."
After two years in the Pac-12, Thompson maintains that the toughest running back to tackle was former Washington All-America Bishop Sankey, who declared for the NFL draft in December. "[He can] run through you, run past you and juke you," Thompson said.
Because he's had a limited number of reps on offense, Thompson has yet to discover who delivers the hardest hits for the Huskies. He remains committed to defense first, but thinks his frame and speed could provide problems for opposing defenses. Thompson also points out that the small details that make a great linebacker -- staying low, keeping a stance, playing downhill -- translate perfectly to running back, where he says that players have to "stay low and come out of your break fast."
"It feels a little natural still," Thompson said. "I haven't touched the ball for almost two years. [Former Washington coach Steve] Sarkisian had told me they'd do something for me [on offense] but nothing really happened. I'm wasn't tripping though -- I came here for linebacker, defense and special teams."
Ironically, it was his work on special teams two years ago that hinted to Petersen that Thompson might be perfect for some offensive work. In the Huskies' 28-26 loss to Boise State in the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl, Thompson returned a kick 30 yards, a move that left an impression on the then-Boise State coach.
"We'll continue to experiment," Petersen said. "Shoot, he might wind up our best guy and we may have to give him more reps. You always want the ball in the hands of your playmakers. Nothing is set in stone. We're just kinda seeing where it goes."
In his eight years at the helm at Boise, Petersen occasionally mixed in packages that featured defensive ends as tight ends, or defensive backs on fly sweeps. But he's never had a true two-way star.
Thompson said that Utah recruited him hard as a running back, but he wanted to be a defensive guy in college, so he never really considered Salt Lake City as a potential landing spot. It remains to be seen if Thompson actually plays any running back come the fall, or in the Huskies' spring game, which is scheduled for April 19. (Washington has gone through six practices so far and reconvenes on April 1 for the second half of spring practice.)
Still, the Huskies must find a replacement for Sankey, and who's to say Thompson can't be part of that committee? His ability to multitask -- and to crack jokes about his stiff arm being "crucial" -- has been a bright spot this spring as Washington deals with a different glaring issue on offense.
Quarterback Cyler Miles, the projected starter following the departure of Keith Price, and wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow are still suspended. There's no word on when or if they'll return. Petersen won't talk about them, or the situation -- they were suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules, but reports surfaced later that Seattle police are investigating an alleged assault near Washington's campus that might have involved Miles and/or Stringfellow -- but the coach is happy to chat about the Huskies' other two quarterbacks. Sophomore Jeff Lindquist and redshirt freshman Troy Williams are short on experience (Lindquist did not attempt a pass last season), but Petersen's system is new to everyone, so they're not necessarily playing catch up.
"Coaches just said to me, 'This is the situation we're in, let's move forward,'" Lindquist said. "It's not really my job to talk about [Miles]. We're adjusting each day."
Implementing a system new to players but old to coaches can be "energizing and frustrating all in the same breath," Petersen said. Then again, that's exactly why he came here: "To do something different, something new."
Lindquist went into the offseason with plans to work on slowing the game down -- he said there have been too many times when he's felt rushed in the pocket -- and "taking a little gas off my ball, because I tend to throw to hard sometimes." Now, with Miles out, Lindquist is getting plenty of opportunities to sharpen his game.
On a drizzly Saturday at Husky Stadium, Williams threw an interception right to linebacker Travis Feeney, and then smacked his helmet in frustration. Williams and Lindquist are far from polished, and they miss more throws than they make right now. Fortunately for them, though, their offensive coordinator is a guy who knows something about being successful in this league.
Former Oregon State standout Jonathan Smith didn't have the ideal build for a quarterback (he's 5-10 on a good day), but he survived behind a combination of heart, smarts and attention to detail. Now he's passing those details down to his players. After Washington's first spring practice, The Seattle Times detailed how Smith demonstrated the proper way for a quarterback to recover a fumble, complete with him diving on the ground and showing the correct angle to take while crawling to the ball.
"With these guys," Thompson said, "it's the littlest things you have to be locked into."
Lindquist doesn't necessarily have a preference for which running back he hands off to this spring. Jesse Callier, Deontae Cooper and Dwayne Washington will all vie for carries alongside Thompson. And for now, Thompson lining up in the backfield is just an experiment. He has spent most of spring practice with the defense, and as such, continues to stress that linebacker is his true home. The hits he delivers prove it.
"I'd rather hit than be hit," Thompson said. "I'd rather bring the pain than take the pain."
Come fall, he might be doing both.