Through two games, WSU strong safety Jalen Thompson is off to a hot start, and WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch says there's no ceiling on his potential.
Jalen Thompson didn’t want to show it in front of his new teammates, but, inside, the kid was freaking out.
It was September 2016, and Thompson had just been told that he would start at strong safety for Washington State in its season opener against Eastern Washington. Mixed in with his excited disbelief – he was starting in his very first college football game as a true freshman! – was an acute anxiety.
So Thompson did what he always does when he needs advice. Four hours before the game, he called his father.
“Dad, I’m so nervous right now,” Thompson said as soon as his father, Demond Thompson picked up the phone. “I just want to do good. I want to do good for coach, and for you guys.”
From hundreds of miles away, in Bellflower, Calif., Demond tried to calm his youngest son. This, he knew, was Jalen being Jalen. The boy had always been eager to please, and in his yearning to make his family proud, he was stressing himself out.
“You’re thinking too much,” Demond said. “When you do that, it makes you mess up. Play like you know how to play and go out there and show them what you’ve been taught.”
The earnest freshman didn’t get off to as great as start as he might have hoped. In the second quarter of the Cougars’ eventual season opening loss to EWU last season, Thompson got burned by EWU receiver Cooper Kupp for a 75-yard score.
“He ran like a slant route over the middle. They faked the run so our linebackers came flying down, and it was wide open,” Thompson said. “I took a poor angle and he got free.”
Touchdown, Eastern Washington; welcome to college football, Jalen Thompson.
“That was a lesson to be taught,” Demond said, laughing as he recalled his youngest son’s memorable debut for WSU. “He got burned. No excuses or nothing. He got outplayed that game. He got torched. I think he learned a little lesson after that.”
A year later, as the 21st-ranked Cougars (2-0) welcome Oregon State (1-2) to Martin Stadium for their Pac-12 opener on Saturday, Thompson has matured from a nervous freshman into a steady sophomore who’s become one of the key pieces in the Cougars’ defensive secondary.
Thompson opened the year on a high note, by intercepting Montana State quarterback Chris Murray in the third quarter of WSU’s season opener and finishing with a team-high seven tackles.
The 6-foot, 191-pound safety is playing with a newfound confidence that wasn’t always present in his injury-marred freshman season, and it’s brought out the best in him so far.
“I think Jalen can be a very, very high-level defensive back in the Pac-12,” WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “I said it last year, and it was probably premature in some ways, and not fair to him, but the sky’s the limit. We’re very pleased with his command of our defense and his ability to play fast and physical and hold up in pass and run coverage.”
For Thompson, the touchdown Kupp – now a starting receiver with the Los Angeles Rams – scored on him in his collegiate debut simply motivated him to work harder.
Which says plenty in itself because his coaches swear the Cougars’ starting strong safety is one of football’s hardest-working players.
“I think he’s one of the best practice players I’ve ever been around,” Grinch says. “It’s every day with him. He’s just fun to coach. He’s been that way every day since he’s been here.”
Thompson graduated from Downey (Calif.) High a semester early and enrolled at WSU in January 2016, six months before his 18th birthday.
Five hours after he arrived at WSU, at about 11 p.m. on that first night, Thompson texted his high school coach, Jack Williams, asking if Williams would send him a weight room workout.
“I was like, ‘You just got there. Relax.’ He said, ‘No coach, I can’t. I gotta work,” said Williams, who coached Thompson for two years at Downey High. “His work ethic is crazy. Jalen’s just a different type of guy. He wants to be the best, whether it’s playing football, or sprinting, or Monopoly, or the statistics test. He wants the best score.”
So when other kids his age were getting ready for their senior prom, Thompson was toiling in the Cougars’ weight room, peppering former WSU safety Shalom Luani with questions, and watching copious amounts of film with Grinch as he tried to absorb WSU’s defensive schemes.
By the beginning of his first fall camp, Thompson was splitting first-team reps at strong safety with former WSU defensive back Charleston White.
By game week, he’d earned the starting job.
Thompson started every game for WSU in 2016, toughing through a back injury sustained against UCLA, and riding through some ups and downs. He finished the year as an ESPN.com Freshman All-American, with a team-high seven pass breakups.
But he’s far from satisfied. Watching Luani get drafted by, and then earning a roster spot with the Oakland Raiders has fueled Thompson to work even harder.
“He’s just trying to follow in Shalom’s footsteps,” said Demond Thompson. “Hopefully when it’s his time, he can get drafted and go to the next level. That’s his goal.”
Like Luani, who was selected by Oakland in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft, Thompson is an instinctual player with good coverage skills who can play safety or nickel.
This offseason, Thompson worked with strength coach Jason Loscalzo to improve his speed, and added 10 pounds to his frame. With a year of experience, he says playing faster and with more fluidity.
“I feel a lot more confident, I know the plays a little bit better, and I just know what everyone on the defense is doing,” Thompson said. “I’m trying to be the fastest player on the field.”
Oh, and he doesn’t get nervous before games anymore.
“No disrespect to Cooper Kupp,” says Demond Thompson. “But I’ll tell you this much right now, if they played that exact same team again, I think things would probably be a little different today than it was in Jalen’s first game then.”