The hype was astounding. 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,” coach Steve Sarkisian said. “And I think his best days are still ahead of him. He’s an awesome kid.”
The prized freshman was finally allowed to speak with the local media Tuesday about his whirlwind first season that saw him force his way onto the field and into the starting lineup in a hybrid linebacker/safety position specially created to exploit his talents and 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 nine 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, 61/2 tackles for loss and an interception playing a hybrid position where he plays more like a linebacker at times and 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 make tackles in the open field. That’s where we’ve tried to put him.”
Not many players have the size and speed to play such a 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 safety Justin Glenn said of the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Thompson. “He’s doing just fine. Shaq came in ready physically. When you come into college, it’s not that easy to transition to for everybody. But Shaq is obviously the exception.”
Thompson had no plans of playing this position, or starting. Sure, he figured he would play, but 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 plans to continue playing football and baseball. He will go back to the Red Sox minor league ranks for the second consecutive 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 playing only one year of baseball since sixth grade – his senior season in high school – Thompson reported to extended spring training in Florida and then to the Gulf Coast League.
He played 13 games and never got a hit. In 39 at-bats, he struck out 37 times. The only time he hit the ball out of the infield was in his final at-bat, when 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.”
That experience prepared Thompson for last week’s game at California.
It was a homecoming of sorts with a dozen family members 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 did not make Thompson a popular man among Bears fans. He heard plenty of catcalls and comments.
He quieted some of the vitriol when he picked off a pass. 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,” he said. “I knew what I was going to get. But it’s life, you make your decisions and that’s how it goes.”Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish