Can Shaq be UW's Honey Badger, minus the drama?
Shaq Thompson has yet to play a down of collegiate football and other than several YouTube highlight videos I have never seen him play.
However I still spend an awful lot of time thinking about what freshman Safety/Linebacker could mean to the Huskies this season (and beyond).
I abhor "hype" and am doing my best to remain measured in my thinking, but it seems as if each new practice report contains some tantalizing description of another big play Shaq has made on defense or special teams.
I don't think I am alone. Even Coach Steve Sarkisian has dispatched with the time-honored tradition in the coaching profession of underselling freshmen/rookies and is talking about Thompson in some pretty heady terms:
"It's about putting your best 11 on the field that we can and we think he is one of those 11 guys, so we are just trying to find a role for him," Sarkisian said.
"And what I've been impressed with about him is his ability to really learn the defenses, even with sitting out there a few days. He's a very bright football player, a very high football IQ, and then he applies it when he goes and plays, and plays it with a very physical mentality, and obviously the closing speed is evident."
Thompson is special for a number of reasons, chief among them for his sheer athletic talent.
Certainly the relevance of recruiting accolades fades with each passing day. Thompson is no longer just another big tally in the race for mythical recruiting supremacy. But landing a recruit of his stature is such a departure from the norm for the Huskies that it is probably worth considering just how big a recruiting win getting him was. Per Scout.com, Thompson was the #1 Safety in the 2012 recruiting class and the #3 player overall in the country. Rivals and 247 Sports ranked him slightly lower, but he was definitely a consensus five star recruit and top five or six player overall.
He is probably the most heralded schoolboy player the Huskies have recruited since Napoleon Kaufman. Among defensive players, he is certainly the most highly regarded recruit the Huskies have signed since the late-80s, when Washington landed Tommie Smith and Dennis Brown, who both received 10 votes on the Long Beach Press-Telegram's Best in the West list.
But talent alone doesn't tell the whole story. There are lots of recruits in every class who are ranked highly, and deservedly so, for being exceptionally talented at something. Shaq is exceptional at seemingly everything.
Thompson starred at running back, quarterback and defensive back for NorCal high school powerhouse Grant Union High School in Sacramento. He was a dangerous return man. He even punted a little. Watching his highlights (and if you haven't already spent a lot of time doing this, I recommend it whole-heartedly: Film Link), he is equally impressive carrying the ball as a tailback out of the I-formation, operating as a Wildcat QB, returning punts, covering receivers in the secondary, and crashing down in run support.
It is Thompson's versatility as a football player that makes him so potentially important to the Huskies. And no, I'm not suggesting that he play running back.
It goes without saying that the Huskies are in need of a talent upgrade on the defensive side of the ball overall. And at 6-2 and 225 or so pounds, Thompson has the stature to be able to play linebacker or safety. With the recent injuries among the Husky LB corps, that is certainly helpful. But Thompson's real value, in my eyes, is in the fact that he can be, for lack of a better name, the Wildcard player that modern defensive coordinators covet to counter the high-octane offenses that are so prevalent in college football today.
Shaq makes me think back to the legendary defense of the 1991 Huskies. I recall hearing a current or former coach describe Jim Lambright's 46 as seeming as if it was two defensive linemen and nine linebackers. That was a commentary not only on th defense e size and aggressiveness of the players on the defense, but also on what the scheme allowed them to do. If the University of Washington had access to technology that would allow Sarkisian and his staff to clone and quickly replicate Thompson, it wouldn't be hard to imagine seven or eight Shaq's playing on defense. And undoubtedly Sark would order another three or four for the offensive side of the ball as well.I'll leave it to a better football mind and writer than me to explain the role and importance of these Wildcard players in football today:
"More recent is the rise of the true hybrid safety/linebacker...instead of taking high school safeties and making them linebackers, coaches are taking athletes who can hit and play pass coverage, and simply letting them make plays. That means everything from blitzing the quarterback or stuffing a running back in the backfield to running step-for-step with a tight end or slot receiver. NFL coaches have begun referring to this as their "big nickel" package, which is a bit misleading because "nickel" is a term invented to describe some smaller part of a team's overall defensive game plan. The reality is that just as NFL offenses rarely line up with two true running backs, NFL defenses rarely line up with three true linebackers. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu were the two best safeties of the last decade or so, but their successors - in body type, athleticism, and playmaking ability - may not play safety at all. Regardless of the position at which he's listed, he'll likely be a linebacker in a safety's body."
Compare that description to what Sark had to say about Shaq just the other day:
"The unique thing that Shaq brings, the versatility that he brings is, he is almost 230 pounds so he is a (defensive back) but he's bigger than a lot of linebackers already at 230 as a freshman. So he can almost play as a hybrid nickel and then play somewhat of a backer in some of those sets, as he was doing today, and we can blitz him. He's got great speed coming off the edge, so I would think that's definitely a reality."
The ability to play Shaq as a linebacker in some sets and a true safety in others gives Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox incredible flexibility in how he calls the defense, without having to worry about making substitutions. That, in turn, gives him a greater ability to disguise his intentions from the opposing offense. In today's wide-open, spread-centric, no-huddle era of offense, a player like that is a real equalizer for a defensive coordinator who knows how to use him. And the Huskies finally have one of those (I think). I can't wait to see how he is used.
I'm projecting a little bit here, but if Thompson shows the ability to cover a slot receiver 1-on-1 in space, he could have an impact on the Husky defense similar to what Tyrann Mathieu has had for the LSU Tigers or what Kenny Vaccaro has for Texas's defense. We'll see, but I certainly expect Thompson to have an impact beyond that of a typical big safety or faster than average linebacker.