Throughout the his first three years on the Forty Acres, including a 2019 campaign that was cut short due to a season-ending foot injury, Josh Thompson has largely been a career backup and special teams specialist.
During his 13 appearances as a sophomore — which included three early starts — and three pre-injury appearances last season, Thompson collected experience at both nickel and safety. So, with the development and high expectations of former U.S. Army All-American Jalen Green, the emergence of then-sophomore D’Shawn Jamison throughout the second half of the season, and the late-season flashes provided by then-freshman Chris Adimora at nickel, it was expected that Thompson would continue to provide reserve support for Texas’ young, developing defensive backs as a redshirt junior.
On the surface, that was just fine; that was Thompson’s role. But that’s not how things have played out to begin the 2020 season. Thompson entered fall camp in that familiar reserve role, but he ended it as a starter, unseating junior Jalen Green, and at least early on, Thompson appears plenty capable as Texas’ starting corner.
Throughout Texas’ 59-3 win over UTEP, Thompson was only targeted in coverage three times, which was understandable given that he absolutely smothered receivers downfield, running step-for-step the entire time.
Josh Thompson, step for step. pic.twitter.com/SKhTy2mvCx— Joe Cook (@josephcook89) September 16, 2020
On the one occasion when Thompson didn’t run step-for-step with his assignment, it’s because he perfectly diagnosed a misread between the quarterback and receiver, so as the receiver cut his route short, Thompson continued for an easy leaping interception; the first of his Longhorns career.
UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison looked Thompson’s way only three times, leading to two incompletions and one pick.
Beyond refusing to allow a completion, Thompson made a couple notable plays against the run as well, bypassing blocks to provide run support and make stops around the line of scrimmage to finish with two tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.
Plenty of team pursuit here. 81 messes with the fullback. 57 meets him in the hole, forces the bounce. 0 and 7 pursue, 9 finishes the job. pic.twitter.com/QrpzWVYRzU— Joe Cook (@josephcook89) September 16, 2020
“He’s on the leadership council — everybody looks up to him because he handles himself like a pro,” Herman said of Thompson following Texas’ 59-3 win over UTEP. “He’s very, very mature. The young kids really gravitate towards him because he’s got an easy way about him where he can speak to a young guy very seriously, very poignantly, but not demeaningly and not condescendingly. It’s fun to watch him lead.”
“Obviously, you’ve got to play well to be a good leader and he came out tonight — we’d seen that all through training camp,” Herman added. “Everybody wants to talk about the interception — that was a heckuva play and we needed it — but he played the game, not just that one play, but every play that he was in, really, really well.”
Thompson exited the game early in the third quarter with an ear laceration that Herman said required “too many stitches to count,” though he is practicing and isn’t expected to miss any time over the minor ailment. That said, we’ve essentially seen two-plus quarters of Thompson in this new role — not a large sample size by any means — against a significantly overmatched opponent.
To say there’s still plenty for Thompson to prove would be an understatement, but he proved to be Texas best option in camp, and in the earliest effort this season, he proved capable of completely eliminating a receiver from plays. When Texas soon meets the more explosive, talent-rich offenses featured by Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor, they’ll need a corner who can excel in man-to-man coverage without consistent help over the top.
The Horns might have found that in Thompson.