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Big hits from Texas S Mykkele Thompson set tone for upset victory

Wait, was that Quandre Diggs? Jason Hall? Nope, it was the much-maligned Mykkele Thompson.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

On the list of Texas Longhorns players likely to deliver a big hit defensively, senior safety Mykkele Thompson is probably near the bottom, but two big strikes among his seven total tackles against the West Virginia Mountaineers set the tone for the win.

The former high school quarterback has come under criticism from many fans for a lack of physicality and admitted during fall camp that it took some time to get used to hitting people, but his striking ability has improved over the last two seasons, culminating in the hardest-hitting performance of his career on Saturday.

The hit on West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood in the flat came right after junior running back Johnathan Gray's 39-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that put Texas up 14-3. After the tackle held the Mountaineers to four yards on first down, the defense allowed two complete passes that went for only five combined yards to force a three and out.

The touchdown run by Gray and ensuing hit by Thompson energized the normally apathetic crowd at DKR and forced the Mountaineers to deal with some serious early adversity on the road.

As the Horns clung to a 26-16 lead in the fourth quarter with the clock under five minutes, Mountaineer quarterback Clint Trickett was flushed from the pocket by junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown and tried to pick up some yardage with his feet on the 3rd and 7 play.

But he should have known from his pass to Smallwood earlier that challenging Thompson could result in a big-time hit that could drive him several yards backwards from the point of contact and directly onto his back.

And so it went for him.

Trickett picked up three yards on the play, but it wasn't enough to allow the Mountaineers a good shot at running the football on a critical fourth down with four yards to gain. Then, a false start penalty moved West Virginia back another five yards.

Brown once again caused pressure on Trickett's fourth-down attempt to wide receiver Jordan Thompsn and the ball fell incomplete, giving Texas the ball at the West Virginia 14-yard line.

The next play?

Taking advantage of the turnover on downs, Gray found a crease to score his third touchdown of the day and put the game out of reach.

Not only did the hits send a message about the overall mindset of the Texas defense, they came at critical times to hold the Mountaineers to short gains and eventually get to the ball back to the offense to consolidate momentum.

Game-changing tackles, essentially.

Now outfitted with contacts that probably helped him pull in his second career interception against Texas Tech, Thompson is not only seeing the football better, he's turned the corner from being an athlete and a former offensive player on defense to a versatile defensive back capable of covering at corner and sticking tackles in the open field.

His 57 tackles rank No. 5 on the team and his 37 solo tackles put him three behind sophomore safety Dylan Haines and senior cornerback Quandre Diggs among the defensive backs and both play positions that have afforded more chances for tackles on the season.

That's because Thompson has successfully made the transition in coverage at cornerback faster than he made the transition from offense to defense, a major help for a defense that hasn't had much depth behind freshman safety Jason Hall with the poor play of sophomore safety Adrian Colbert.

Perhaps it has even helped him out a bit since he hasn't had to take as many correct lateral angles coming towards the ball, his other main area of struggle through his career.

As a key piece in the Texas secondary this season, howevever, he's individually responsible for ensuring that no teams have produced a passing play of more than 40 yards this season.

It's been a process for Thompson to reach this point, but he's now a well-rounded defensive back capable of making form tackles that surely made defensive coordinator Vance Bedford smile in the film room on Sunday and hold his own as a cover cornerback.

Not a perfect performance from the senior by any means, as he still missed several tackles, but he's clearly a different player than he was a year ago.

Mykkele Thompson, you're now certified DBU. Welcome to the fraternity.

certified dbu