It was an unfair matchup – a true freshman safety against an FCS All-American receiver who would later become a third-round draft choice by the Los Angeles Rams.
The result was Cooper Kupp’s 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run last year in the second quarter of Eastern Washington’s stunning season-opening win over Washington State.
But the true freshman safety is bouncing back just fine.
Jalen Thompson wound up starting all 13 games for WSU last year, and he continues to quietly impress observers at the Cougars’ preseason football camp at Sacajawea Junior High. If you don’t hear his name as often as you did early in his freshman season, it’s because he did an exemplary job of forgetting that costly error in angle judgment against Kupp. He’s not making similar mistakes.
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“He’s naturally a really optimistic guy – you never see him get down,” Cougars coach Mike Leach said Sunday after a relatively brief practice in 98-degree conditions. “He plays extremely hard, and he’s been a pretty good example to guys older than him as far as playing hard.”
Self-assured but down-to-earth, the sophomore from Long Beach, Calif., admitted to being “a bit nervous” for his college debut last year, when senior teammate Shalom Luani drew a one-game suspension that thrust Thompson into the starting lineup against Kupp and the Eagles.
“I had never gone against a receiver like that – it was a new experience,” Thompson said. “But I kind of picked up how they were moving in that game, and the next game I tried to fix it. I learned from my mistakes.”
He had already impressed defensive coordinator Alex Grinch by quickly picking up the basics of his defensive schemes in last year’s preseason camp.
“It was a little difficult at first, but working with coach Grinch and guys like Shalom and Robert Taylor – all working together like that – it became kind of easy,” Thompson said. “You just learn the plays, watch film every day, and I got it down quickly. I watched some of the older guys, especially last year. I saw the mistakes they were making and I just tried to improve when I went in there.”
Thompson and Taylor are expected to start at safety again this season.
“He keeps getting better,” Leach said of Thompson. “He’s really explosive, he’s really athletic. … Like anybody, you stay on him, but some of his improvement takes care of itself a little bit, just because he pushes himself so hard.”