After a rocky summer of minor-league baseball, freshman Shaq Thompson arrived at Washington as a highly recruited safety. He was switched to linebacker and has thrived at the position.
Shaq Thompson had trouble hitting curveballs and fastballs last summer while playing rookie-league baseball for the Boston Red Sox. Then he was offered a big change-up in the fall by the Washington Huskies, who decided to take him out of his familiar safety spot and move him to a hybrid linebacker-nickelback role.
But Tuesday, when he met the media for the first time as a member of the Huskies, the freshman offered no complaints about any of it.
He plans to return to baseball as soon as this spring and continue to see if he has what it takes to make it with the Red Sox.
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And while the Huskies say his role could be re-evaluated after this season, Thompson said he’s just fine where he is.
“I actually do like it. I played linebacker growing up, in the middle,” said Thompson, who as a senior last year at Grant High in Sacramento was considered by many as the top safety prospect in the country.
The Huskies initially thought about using him there. But they are deep at safety this year with senior Justin Glenn and junior Sean Parker starting, and needed help at linebacker.
“It was surprising for me because I thought I was going to come in playing safety,” Thompson said. “But then when (UW coaches) told me they were going to try me at linebacker and nickelback I was like, ‘thank God. I can get on the field and play with these guys.’ “
The move has worked. Thompson is tied for third on the team in tackles with 51 and is the leader in tackles-for-loss with 6.5. He also has two interceptions, including one he returned 33 yards in the fourth quarter last week to clinch a win at California.
That game was played in front of family and friends who made the trip from nearby Sacramento, though Thompson also heard his fair share of boos from Cal fans who figured he would be one of theirs.
He committed twice to Cal (where his brother Syd’Quan had played) before announcing two days before letter-of-intent day he planned to instead become a Husky. He was lured in part by the presence of new Huskies assistant coaches Justin Wilcox and Tosh Lupoi, each of whom had previously worked for the Bears.
“The crowd was tough but the players showed me a lot of love,” Thompson said, adding, “I kind of knew what I was going to get — that’s life, you make your choice and decision and that’s where I went.”
He holds a similar philosophical attitude toward his baseball career. After signing with UW he was drafted in the 18th round by the Red Sox and spent the summer playing in the Gulf Coast League — he reportedly received a $45,000 bonus for signing and can earn up to $100,000 if he plays for four years. He earned his share of unwanted notoriety, though, when he went 0 for 39 at the plate with 37 strikeouts (he also had eight walks).
But he remains undeterred by those who mocked his baseball ability.
“It kind of inspired me to know there is a lot of people hating on me,” he said. “It inspired me to keep playing. That’s what I’m going to do.”
He said he might attend extended spring training in April, working it around spring football and taking online classes, then play again for a month or so in the summer.
He called his baseball experience “crazy” and admitted for a while he was so homesick he was calling his mom every day. He said she told him it was all part of growing up and that baseball “taught me a lot, that not everything good is going to come” easily.
When he arrived at UW in late July, some of his new teammates wondered about the highly touted new guy. Some high school All-Americans arrive thinking they already have it made. But Glenn, a fifth-year senior, says Thompson did nothing but put his head down and work.
“You can tell that he’s confident in what he does,” Glenn said. “But he’s not a boastful, cocky guy. So it was not like at any time we had to put him in his place or anything like that, which happens sometimes. He’s been a humble kid who has just worked hard and gone on to the place where we thought he would be.”
Friday night, his place for a few minutes was running down the middle of the field, ball in hand, returning the interception that set up UW’s final touchdown. He showed a quick burst despite the fact he’s been dealing with a nagging ankle/Achilles injury that he says has made it hard to push off.
Fans who saw the run wondered if it might make UW coach Steve Sarkisian follow through with an initial thought to use Thompson at times on offense. But this week Sarkisian made his most forceful statement yet that he sees Thompson’s future primarily on defense.
“We’ve made it a conscious effort, and I am going to say it over and over and over again, we are going to play good defense here,” Sarkisian said. “And I am not going to sacrifice our defense for our offense.”
Thompson said that, too, is fine with him.
“I’m not really tripping off of it,” he said. “I’m happy on defense.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta.