Texas Longhorns safety Mykell Thompson has gone from special teams ace to starter in just his second year as a defensive player.
Thompson made his first career start at strong safety last Saturday against West Virginia and was second on the team with 10 tackles. The breakout performance showed Thompson's development as a defender. He was an all-state quarterback at Stevens High School in San Antonio, but the Longhorns always envisioned him in the secondary.
Defensive backs guru Duane Akina has coached 10 former Longhorns who are currently on NFL rosters. He saw enough athleticism from Thompson as a quarterback to believe he could develop the lanky sophomore into a legitimate safety. Now, Thompson is rewarding that foresight.
"When we recruited him, he was recruited mainly as an athlete. I really like some of the things I saw with him running and jumping athletically," Akina said. "He is now starting to see the game quicker and become more confident. The reps are starting to matter and he is becoming a little more physical."
Tackling has been Thompson's biggest challenge since coming to Texas. But he has not been a liability so far this season.
"Mykell is a guy, being a high school quarterback his entire life, who had been taught to avoid contact," defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "When you go to the other side and go play defense, you have to do the opposite. The guy you were trying to avoid, now you want to go hit."
Diaz pointed to a play from the West Virginia game as proof of Thompson's development as a tackler, detailing how Thompson broke up a screen play to prevent a long gain.
"A lot of defensive backs will retreat from the offensive lineman, but Mykell goes and knocks into the lineman, which forces the running back to stop his feet at cut back and we make the tackle right there," Diaz said. "That was a big time play for us and the development of a football player."
As a freshman, Thompson led Texas with eight special teams tackles and blocked a punt. He's been a force on special teams again this year, blocking two punts and forcing a fumble.
Thompson's next hurdle will come against No. 13 Oklahoma on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl. The Sooners average 279 passing yards per game and have a dynamic receiver in junior Kenny Stills.
"Mykell is ready for it" said cornerback Carrington Byndom. "I think he's coming along, making strides and progressing."
By Austin Laymance/Special to Star-Telegram