Jalen Thompson joined WSU in January as an early enrollee, but has already impressed coaches and teammates at the safety position

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PULLMAN – Cornerback Darrien Molton proved to be quite the prodigy last fall when he earned a starting job on Washington State’s defense by the end of fall camp.

The Cougars might have another defensive wunderkind in the making this spring in Downey (Calif.) High freshman Jalen Thompson, an early enrollee who has quickly earned the respect of his teammates and coaches.

Thompson was all over the field at practice on Thursday, as the WSU defense rebounded from what defensive coordinator Alex Grinch called an “average” Tuesday outing that ended in a round of gassers, to beat the offense in Thursday’s team period.

The 6-foot, 176-pound true freshman played strong safety with the second team defense on Thursday but still managed to pick off Luke Falk, score a pass breakup in a one-on-one situation against Jamal Morrow and get in between Kyle Sweet and a pass from backup quarterback Peyton Bender.

“He should be running track his senior year, and he’s out here competing,” Grinch said. “The moment is not too big for him right now. Everything we’ve thrown at him, he’s responded to. That’s pretty exciting.”

Grinch said Thompson is learning at a pace about equal to Molton’s when the cornerback joined the team last fall.

“I’d say from a maturity standpoint, for a young player, they’re pretty similar,” Grinch said. “He steps to the plate and attacks ball carriers and attacks balls like he’s doing at Downey High School. That’s sometimes the biggest issue for young guys, as well as the mental side of things.”

Thompson’s aptitude for the game was apparent even in meetings before the Cougars began spring football, Grinch said.

“He picked it up in the meeting room, which gave him a better chance to come out here and pick up the physical and athletic side of it pretty quickly,” Grinch said. “It’s too early to make predictions, but we’re glad he’s here.”

The freshman will have to fight junior Charleston White for a starting spot though. White switched from cornerback to safety this spring and has taken well to his transition. He’s currently working with the ones at strong safety alongside Shalom Luani.

“It’s a bit of an experiment in the name of being more athletic,” Grinch said. “It’s been pretty good work by him so far though.”

White played 12 games last season at cornerback, starting four. The biggest difference involved in the move to safety, he says, is that he has had to learn to call the defense because in Grinch’s system, the safeties handle the defensive calls.

From that standpoint, White said he’s been working to enhance his understanding of Grinch’s system.

Even he has been impressed by how quickly Thompson has managed to learn the playbook and perform on the field.

“He’s out here making plays like he’s been here before,” White said. “It’s always exciting to see young guys come in and do that.”

For Grinch, it’s heartening to have two guys both showing promise so early on at a position where the Cougars were so thin last season that starters Luani and Taylor Taliulu never came off the field.

Building depth at safety  is “a huge emphasis” this spring, Grinch said.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re trying as best we can (to have) ‘a pair and a spare,'” Grinch said. “We’d prefer to play more than just the starters at any position, and that’s one of those positions where, not only are we replacing a starter, but our depth needs to improve.”