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Syd'Quan Thompson: Ready for the next step

Cal cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson's collegiate career couldn't have started less auspiciously than it did. Covering for the injured Tim Mixon, Thompson was thrown into the starting defense for the 2006 opener against Tennessee. At their home stadium, the Vols beat Thompson's Golden Bears badly, putting up a 35-point third-quarter lead before Cal was able to score a few points and make the 35-18 final look more competitive than it actually was. Thompson was frequently set against receiver Robert Meachem, the then-NCAA star who just won his first Lombardi Trophy with the New Orleans Saints. Meachem caught five passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the game, and Thompson had his first lesson in the next level.

"Just looking at my first game, and then the rest of my career, I think that will tell it all," Thompson told me in a recent interview. "I really just grew as a player. My first game was rough -- at Tennessee, in front of all their fans, and I had a big cast on. That was probably the worst game of my career, but I really grew from that day forward."

Did he ever. Thompson recovered to remain in the starting lineup all 13 games that first season, and he captured the team's Freshman of the Year award, registered one interception, recovered two fumbles, and began the process of learning coverages for the college game.

"Each receiver is going to give you a different type of challenge," he said. "I just line up, ready to compete on each down, playing at the Division-I level and (soon at) the NFL level. Everybody's good -- everybody's a competitor. I don't really worry about the size, or how fast or quick they are; I just line up and play my game and compete."

Thompson became more of a problem for enemy receivers in 2007. Not only did his coverage improve, but his tackling ability became a focus. At 5-foot-9 and 182 pounds, you wouldn't expect this cornerback to look for tackling opportunities, but it's perhaps the most-discussed aspect of his game. He has 20 career tackles for a loss, and he's very good at getting past receiver blocks, or darting through on corner blitzes, to stop things from happening in the backfield.

"Growing up, just playing Pop Warner football -- all the teams I grew up with, and all the people I played with, I hit," he told me. "You didn't want to be known as a dude who didn't hit and was afraid of contact. I pride myself on that. Going into high school and playing varsity as a sophomore -- I remember my first collision was against C.J. Wallace, who played for the Seahawks. He was a senior, and I was a sophomore, and I was scared to hit him a little because I was small. He hit me, as if to say, "Welcome to varsity!" Ever since that day, I step in with whatever my body frame presents itself as. I get excited when it's a one-on-one tackle. Teams like to do that -- block down to where it's a one-on-one battle between a receiver and a corner."

Starting in 2008, it was Thompson's coverage skill that got all the attention -- except from opposing quarterbacks. More and more, they'd refuse to throw where he was, the ultimate sign of respect. One reason that stats for defensive backs are so difficult to take in context is that quite often, the best of them won't see many balls thrown their way. The term for defenders who divert quarterback intentions in this way is "shutdown corner", which is what Thompson became in 2008. When teams did throw his way, they paid for it -- he picked off four passes and deflected 18 more that season. This may have coincided with Cal's switch to a 3-4 defense before the 2008 season, but Thompson told me that his responsibilities weren't very different in the new formations.

"I don't think things really changed for me as a cornerback," he said. "We still ran the same schemes somewhat -- zone pressures and man-to-man. I think switching to a 3-4 just allowed our defense to play a little faster. Our strength on the team was our linebackers, and we had to find a way to get everyone some playing time. I think the 3-4 really helped us. As far as me as a corner, it was pretty much the same."

Thompson is seen as a zone corner at the next level due to his size, but Cal played quite a bit of man-to-man, and his ability to stick with a receiver in tight coverage, and skill for jumping routes at the last minute, had me thinking that he was running the floor as a basketball player would. After confirming that he did indeed play point guard in high school, Thompson talked about the coverages designed by defensive coordinator Bob Gregory, who has since left the program to join the Boise State staff.

"We played a little more man than zone -- our base defense was man coverage, and out of those same looks where we were playing press (coverage), we'd throw some zone in there, or bring a blitz with the second look."

2009 brought more kudos -- Thompson's second straight first-team All-Pac10 selection, the team's Ken Harvey Award for academic commitment and improvement, and an invitation to the Senior Bowl. There, Thompson got a preview of the NFL life and what things will be like when he joined the North team, coached by Detroit Lions head man Jim Schwartz and his staff.

"It was a good experience -- obviously, experience that I needed," he said. "Learning how things were going to be at the next level, and I really enjoyed it. I learned things just being there that week -- what they expect out of you as far as practice and interacting with different scouts and stuff. It was amazing. They weren't really technical about things -- it was only a week, and you can't really get technical and in-depth in that week. It's more seeing that you can compete at a high level against the top athletes."

Thompson is currently training at Athletes Performance in Arizona, getting ready for this week's scouting combine, which is the next big step for him. I asked Rob Rang, Senior Draft Analyst of NFLDraftScout.com, for his take on Thompson's prospects.

"Thompson is a classic cover-2 (defense) cornerback," Rang said. "He lacks the size and straight-line speed some NFL schemes require, but his stellar instincts, burst to the ball and physicality make him arguably the safest cornerback in the draft, behind Florida's Joe Haden. While certainly smaller than scouts would like, Thompson is a competitor that handles bigger receivers well and is a force against the running game due to his reliable open field tackling and willingness to take out the knees of oncoming blockers. He'll need to be protected by the scheme, but if drafted to the right club, Thompson has immediate impact ability."

Syd'Quan Thompson may have had a rocky start to his college career, but he turned it all around to become one of the best at his position in the country. Now that the NFL comes calling, a new challenge awaits.

By Doug Farrar  |  February 22, 2010; 9:11 AM ET  | Category:  Combine , Doug Farrar , Draft Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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