Shaq Thompson Deftly Juggles 2 Positions--And 2 Sports
Nov. 6, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - A couple months ago in Louisiana, Shaq Thompson met the man after whom he was named.
"You are the `Basketball Shaq,'" the Huskies' precocious true freshman starter told retired NBA star Shaquille O'Neal in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Baton Rouge, two nights before Washington played at Louisiana State Sept. 8.
"I'm the `Football Shaq.'"
He's working on being a "Baseball Shaq," too.
That sport humbled him last summer. Huskies football has revitalized him since.
The top-rated safety recruit in the nation last winter - and 18th-round draft choice of the Boston Red Sox -- has put an 0-fer summer in his first taste of minor-league baseball behind him like a splintered bat. He is now a dynamic, hybrid linebacker-safety whacking opposing ball carriers and making huge plays for the Huskies (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12).
His 10th start in 10 college games will come Saturday night against Utah (4-5, 2-4) at CenturyLink Field.
"The experience was crazy because it was like my first time," Thompson said of baseball following UW's practice Tuesday morning. "It was a lot of years that I hadn't played baseball (six). It was rough - as you can tell."
His wry smile was a reminder of him going 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts and eight walks this summer as an outfielder for the rookie Gulf Coast League Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla. He had not played baseball from sixth grade until last year as a senior at Grant High School in Sacramento, Calif.
"But football really changed everything, got my mind off of it," he said.
"Yeah, it motivated me a lot. I had a rough baseball season. But football came out and it's a great outcome right now. And I plan to finish hard."
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound playmaker has been so good so soon for the Huskies, first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox created a position in the base defense in August so he could get Thompson on the field. For the first time in four seasons under coach Steve Sarkisian, Washington is using essentially five defensive backs in its base defense.
Thompson is listed as the starting "nickel" back, but he is playing just off the edge of the line of scrimmage like an outside linebacker to reinforce a position that was wrecked with injuries in August.
Sarkisian refers to Thompson's as a "hybrid" linebacker-safety spot. One play he is blitzing off the edge into the offensive backfield. The next he is lined up man-to-man across from a slot receiver and dropping into pass coverage.
There's no telling where No. 7 may be or what his job might become on a given play.
"It was surprising to me. I thought I was going to come in and play safety, back behind Sean Parker and Justin Glenn and just learn from them," he said. "But when Coach Wilcox told me he was going to try me at linebacker in nickel, I was like `Thank God! I'm going to be able to get on the field and play with these guys.'
"I actually do like it. I played linebacker growing up, middle."
It took Thompson into the regular season to get used to the using his hands more to ward off bigger offensive linemen than he would at safety. But he credited first-year linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, who arrived in January with Wilcox from Tennessee, with perfecting his handy work.
And it is working. Thompson had seven tackles, two for losses, last week in a homecoming in front of his mother Patty and his brother at California. His 33-yard interception return midway through the fourth quarter set up Bishop Sankey's second touchdown run, the final points in UW's 21-13 victory that was its first road win in 13 months.
"It felt good, going back to home, playing in front of my family," he said. "The interception, Coach Sark, he had told me I was going to get one the day before. It came true. I was congratulating him, and told him, `Thank you.'"
Thompson has committed to Cal last year, then signed in February with Washington. Sarkisian has been supportive with recruits' hopes to play multiple sports; tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins went from the Alamo Bowl to Pac-12 basketball in a matter of weeks last January.
Sarkisian has a specific affinity for baseball. The coach was a .446 hitter and 8-0 pitcher with a 1.32 ERA in his senior year of high school in Southern California. He spent the fall of 1992 on USC's baseball roster before transferring to junior college and eventually starring as a quarterback at Brigham Young.
That helped sway Thompson to become a Husky.
Not surprisingly, he heard about that choice last Friday in Berkeley.
"Yeah, the crowd was tough," he said. "But the players showed me a lot of love.
"I kind of knew what I was going to get it. That's life, you know. You make a decision and that's what I went with."
For the season, Thompson is two off the UW team lead with 51 tackles, and his 6½ tackles for loss lead the Huskies. He also has a sack and two interceptions.
Safety and senior co-captain Justin Glenn is impressed.
"When you come into college it's not that easy to transition right away for everybody. But Shaq's obviously an exception," Glenn said.
"Just his athleticism, his size, his speed. Just the combination of everything. And he's a smart kid, too. He's just got all those things coming together that work well for him. And he is just able to put it out on the field."
Imagine what Thompson will become when fully healthy. He has played much of this debut season with a nagging ankle injury that causes him pain each time he pushes off his left foot.
Plus, he's playing that new position.
"He's been a traditional linebacker at times for us, and the reason he has done that it gives us the best chance to win right now," Wilcox said. "Shaq's got a really good skill set. He is a big guy, and he is still learning to play the game. He didn't play a lot of defense in high school.
"We are trying to put him in spots where he does defend a lot of the field and makes tackles in the open field."
Wilcox says it's possible Thompson could return to safety next season should UW's defense get reinforcements at linebacker, as it expects.
Thompson first met Wilcox eight years ago, when Wilcox was an assistant at Cal recruiting Thompson's older brother Syd'Quan to be a cornerback with the Golden Bears.
Shaq laughed Tuesday when reminded of that.
"Yeah, I remember him. I remember him coming over and my mom cooking chicken for him and everything," he said. "And he always told me that he was going to recruit me. That's the one thing I remember."
With tightly braided hair, easy smile and a calm demeanor off the field, Thompson gives off a vibe that is more mature than the average teenage college freshman.
He feels that way, too. That's the result of a summer spent busing around the Gulf Coast of Florida getting paid to play baseball - albeit on the lowest level of the minor leagues.
"I mean, it was hard. I was missing my family back home. I was calling my mom every day," he said. "But she told me, `Hey, you are becoming grown. Got to take care of business on my own.' So that's what I'm used to now.
"Just meeting all the guys, all the other nationalities, from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela. Just meeting all them, that was a great experience."
Thompson got national attention last summer for his hitless stint in rookie ball.
And the Huskies are now benefitting from that fuel.
"It taught me a lot," he said. "Everything good is not going to come. You've got to get used to failure. And that's what I got used to. ... "But baseball, I had to really get used to it.
"It kind of inspired me. There were a lot of people hating on me," he added. "It inspired me to keep playing. And that's what I am going to do."
Both sports, that is. Thompson said he will go back to baseball this spring and summer, balancing that sport and Huskies football.
"Oh, yeah, I am going to go back. Baseball is telling me to come back, work hard," he said of the Red Sox, who he says are being patient because they know he didn't play baseball for five years until 2011.
"Football, I just know I've got to come back because somebody is going to be there in my spot. I've just got to work hard in training camp."
So is it harder to hit a baseball or a sprinting running back?
"In baseball it depends on the pitch. If it's a curveball, it's movin'," he said. "In football it depends how fast he is running. You don't know what move he is going to make. I just have to really focus in."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: UW has distributed about 55,000 tickets for Saturday night's home finale. That total includes 2,000 allotted to Utah. ... The early forecast for kickoff is clear and chilly, with temperatures perhaps getting into the 30s by game's end.