BOGACZYK: Herd’s Thompson Finds Means to an End
The Word on the Herd-Sept. 25, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Gary Thompson just needed to measure up.
The question for the Marshall defensive end was whether he needed to play to a reflection of his very large performance in the Herd’s strength and conditioning program. That’s what Coach Doc Holliday and his staff wanted.
Marshall fans, however, had their own image of the Thompson they liked. They wanted the bullish rush end who did the unlikely – intercepting two East Carolina passes, one for a 5-yard touchdown -- as the Herd clinched its first Conference USA East Division title at Edwards Stadium in November 2013. Then, there was Thompson trying to live up to his own expectations.
“It was pretty much that the coaches challenged me to play up to my numbers,” Thompson said earlier this week. “In the weight room, I was putting up numbers and Doc was like, ‘You’re putting up big numbers in the weight room, but can you play up to them?’ And that’s what every coach has challenged me to do.”
Thompson is one of six Marshall players who reached Iron Herd Club status this summer for exceeding certain measurables based upon body weight. Included were his 1,345 pounds lifted (bench, squat, power clean), which ranked second on the team to 1,380 by offensive lineman Ryan Riedel.
“Previously,” Thompson said, “I felt I’d been playing up to my numbers and Coach (Sean) Cronin (MU’s defensive ends coach), I don’t know exactly how he feels now, but to me, I feel like I haven’t played up to my numbers, play like I can play.”
All of the above became problematical when Thompson suffered a posterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee in a win last Oct. 4 at Old Dominion.
It’s been a tough row for Thompson to hoe, but the redshirt junior has won a starting job. And among his 18 tackles as Marshall (2-1) heads to Kent State (1-2) for Saturday’s 3:30 kickoff, the La Mesa, Calif., resident leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
When Thompson arrived at Marshall from Helix High School, he was a cat-quick, 6-foot-1, 206-pound prospect and as a senior made 55 tackles, including 18 for loss with 14 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. After sitting out 2012-13 to retain eligibility, he began August camp in 2013 at 225 pounds and played that season at “Fox” behind senior Alex Bazzie.
Thompson has since bulked up to 248 pounds. The weight gain has changed his game only in one fashion.
“It hasn’t changed a lot,” the personable Thompson said. “When I was behind Bazzie my freshman year, they used me pretty much as a third-down guy because it was my first year and they didn’t know how I’d react to the run.
“Coach Cronin was like, ‘You’re going to want to play more than third down, so you’re going to have to get your weight up a little bit so you can hold your ground.’ So, that’s what I did, just to hold my ground in the run game so I wouldn’t get pushed around like I used to do.
“I was able to hold my ground, but I’ve got short arms and short legs. I’m kind of undersized there as a defensive lineman, so if I don’t attack my key and do what I’m supposed to do, I get pushed out of my gap.”
Thompson had those two picks of ECU’s Shane Carden, but his rookie year was about more than the spectacular. He made only one start, but finished the Herd’s Military Bowl-winning season with 30 tackles, including five for loss with three sacks. He added seven hurries, two pass breakups, recovered two fumbles and forced another … and made the C-USA All-Freshman Team.
Last season, Thompson was backing up senior Arnold Blackmon and had played 121 snaps through the first four games when he fell on his right knee while it was bent early at ODU. He missed five games and his explosive style of play was curbed … physically and mentally, it turned out.
“It was very frustrating,” Thompson said. “I went down at Old Dominion and was supposed to be out the rest of the season but I took rehab really seriously, no surgery needed. I was in (the training room) 3-4 times every day, trying to come back for at least the last few games. I came back at UAB (Nov. 22) and that first time back, man, I thought if they run my way, I’ve got to put pressure on this leg … ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, how I’m going to react to it.’
“At UAB I was kind of scared because I was falling on my leg and I was trying to get out the way, and I was thinking, ‘Try not to worry about it and just play,’ but in the back of your mind you’re thinking if you fall, it’s going to happen again.
“Eventually, as it got down toward the (Boca Raton) bowl game, I started to go. But then I came back and hurt it again a little bit, and it hurt my get-off because I couldn’t bend down all the way, cut the corner like I did, like I wanted to.”
During winter workouts, Thompson “had some stuff floating around in the knee and had surgery, so I missed spring ball (this April). The PCL had fully healed by itself, but then after getting hurt again, my PCL was at risk for other injuries.”
Thompson was out in those spring drills while there was plenty of competition on what is always a rotating system on the defensive front. And because he had sat out for academics, he had missed the 2013 spring practice, too.
“Missing this spring really set me back a lot because that would have been only my second spring, which I really needed because the first spring I had I didn’t know how to take it because it was something new,” Thompson said. “I really needed that this spring because it would have determined how I went into summer.
“But I couldn’t do anything at all, so I didn’t start practicing until (August) camp came along and that made me start late. I started last season where I left off after the previous spring. It stopped my progression.”
As for those in Thundering Herd Nation expecting Thompson to have another two-interception game anytime soon, he said it might be a good idea to not hold your breath.
“Those plays,” he recalled of the two picks at the ECU 20 and 5, “I can’t even explain them, really. They just happened. That’s just me in my freshman year practicing hard and doing what my coaches told me to do, straining to play hard.
“That year, Ra’Shawde Myers had (an interception against UTSA). How often do you see a defensive end get an interception? I was just straining to the ball. That’s we were taught to do. That’s what we were forced to do; we had no choice.
“I’m a lot smarter player now … a lot smarter. I don’t just run up the field after the quarterback like I used to. I attack my key. I know what I’m supposed to do on certain plays instead of just busting plays and still making tackles, but … I had a few MA’s (missed assignments), a few missed tackles, but I was always running around.”
He still is. Now, Thompson admits, “I know what I’m doing.”