SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Inside a plush hotel ballroom here on a cold, rainy Wednesday morning in the Valley of the Sun, opinions varied on the subject of Washington Huskies junior Shaq Thompson.
He’s an outstanding football player. On that point, most agree. But what position does he play best, and which will he play in the NFL?
Deontae Cooper, a UW running back, admits bias when he says he most enjoys watching Thompson carry the ball out of the backfield. Danny Shelton, UW’s hulking All-American defensive tackle, likes Thompson at linebacker – though if someone put him full-time at safety, “I guarantee he’d end up killing somebody.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy joked that if Thompson wanted to transfer to OSU for his senior year, he’d play him at linebacker. Huskies coach Chris Petersen thinks Thompson could succeed at several positions, but wondered if his best fit might be at safety, which is where Thompson figured he’d play when he signed with the Huskies back in 2012.
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“I’m not sure if that’s not his best position down the road,” Petersen said Wednesday during UW’s media day ahead of Friday’s Cactus Bowl game against Oklahoma State (7:15 p.m., ESPN). “So I think he’s just very unique. I haven’t seen a guy like that in a long time.”
And Friday might be the last chance to see him in a Huskies uniform. Thompson, a junior from Sacramento, California, said again Wednesday that he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll declare this year for the NFL draft, reiterating that he’ll sit down with his family and Petersen after the bowl game to figure it out.
He said he hasn’t yet submitted paperwork for a draft evaluation, but said his decision will depend on “whatever the grade is, honestly. It depends on the grade, and pros and cons.”
At this point, most would be stunned if he stayed. Thompson is considered a first or second-round pick by several NFL draft pundits after winning the Paul Hornung Award for the nation’s most versatile player and receiving a handful of first-team All-America honors.
His first love is defense – linebacker, specifically – and he stood out on that side of the ball in 2014, recording 71 tackles and leading the country with four defensive touchdowns and four fumble recoveries. Against certain teams, he dropped back and played safety. Regardless, he seemed to find his way to the football. And he was a mainstay on UW’s special-teams units.
But Thompson truly established his reputation for versatility when injuries thinned UW’s depth at running back and he stepped in as the Huskies’ primary ballcarrier for three games, in addition to spot duty there earlier in the season.
He carried 61 times for 456 yards – an average of 7.5 per rush – and two touchdowns before resuming full-time linebacker duties.
Given his diverse football portfolio, it’s not clear where Thompson, at 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, might fit in the NFL. But he’ll fit in somewhere.
“If the team asks for it, then I’m going to do it,” Thompson said. “I’m not really selfish or too big on ‘I want to play this specific position.’ If they get me at safety, then they get me at safety.”
Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for CBSSports.com, thinks there is a happy medium to be found.
“I absolutely agree with the idea of Shaq as a hybrid player,” Rang said, “most likely as a 4-3 outside linebacker and safety. I think that’s what we’re seeing in the NFL. There’s a number of teams that use hybrid offensive players – tight ends, wide receivers – so NFL teams are going to have to adjust and try to find hybrid defensive players to handle those kind of responsibilities.”
Rang said Thompson is still more likely to try to avoid blockers with his agility rather than take them on with brute strength, but with more NFL offenses favoring finesse over ground-and-pound, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Because of Shaq’s unique size, speed, ball skills and instincts,” Rang said, “he’s one of those players uniquely capable of handling that.”
Thompson said he assumed he’d be playing safety at Washington – that’s where he played as a 5-star prospect at Grant High School – but then-defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox created a hybrid safety/linebacker position to get Thompson on the field as a freshman.
As a first-year college player learning linebacker responsibilities for the first time, Thompson was a little lost. So he relied on UW middle linebacker John Timu to coach him on the finer points.
“I really didn’t know what to do,” Thompson said. “My first year, I was just out there playing ball. I had John Timu, he was like my eyes. He was telling me what to do on the field, and I would just go play.”
He also had to learn how to watch and break down game film, something his coaches had done for him in high school.
“I’ve always seen Shaq and John Timu together watching film, always talking about the game, talking about coverage,” Shelton said. “It’s just crazy to see how the season went. He’s just a playmaker. He’s going to chase down someone 20 yards and make a play, maybe cause a fumble, probably take it 90 yards and score. He could probably kick the extra-point, too.”
Petersen said Thompson has become more technically and fundamentally sound.
“There are little detail things that are hard for the average fan to see, but as a coach you can see, ‘OK, that was pretty good.’ And when guys play with true fundamentals – I think (linebackers coach) Bob Gregory’s done a really good job with him in terms of those type of things,” Petersen said. “That’s why you saw him show up so much not only at linebacker but special-teams, as well.”
Rang projects Thompson as the 20th overall pick in his most recent mock draft. He has Shelton going 16th overall to Houston, and former cornerback Marcus Peters – dismissed from the team in November – going 30th to New England.
UW’s single-season and career sacks leader, Hau’oli Kikaha, likely projects as a second or third-round pick, Rang said. Like Thompson, his uncertain NFL fit – 4-3 defensive end? Rush end? Outside linebacker? – makes him a unique prospect.
But nobody is as unique as Thompson.
“He’s improved in the areas that make sense playing defense in today’s NFL,” Rang said. “It’s not a traditional linebacker role. That’s what makes him so unique and makes his projection a little bit more complicated than most outside linebackers.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple