It’s tough enough for a football player to hone his craft at just one position. The University of Washington’s Shaq Thompson took on three. The 6-foot, 228-pound California native was originally recruited as a safety. By the time he was a senior, he’d played safety, inside and outside linebacker and even running back. With the NFL Draft rapidly approaching, Thompson sees himself at outside linebacker at the next level, though his versatility and experience on both sides of the ball might ultimately be his greatest asset.
When we sat down with Thompson as he trained for the NFL Combine at EXOS San Diego, we asked about his ability to play multiple positions, why he doesn’t want to be a running back in the NFL and whether he thinks he needs to put on weight.
STACK: How has your NFL Combine training been different than what you did at Washington?
Shaq Thompson: What I was used to at Washington was just putting up as much weight as you could Squat, Bench—basically as much of your max and you do a certain amount of sets. But here, it’s basically less weight and more reps.
What do you need to work on most?
I just need to get more mobilization in my ankles and more flexibility. Stretch out without getting stiff and stuff when I’m trying to stretch. From a Combine standpoint, just to work on my 40 technique. Work on my L-drill, my Shuttle, my 5-10-5. Making goals that I can achieve.
What’s the most important drill at the Combine for you?
The drill at the Combine that I think could really help my stock, or anyone’s stock, is the 40-Yard Dash. All the agility drills you have to do with the coaches, like shuffling over the bags or going over the bags. Really just finishing through the cones. Just like how you play football, finish through the play. (UPDATE: Thompson ran a 4.64 40-Yard Dash at the Combine)
Do you feel you need to put on more weight?
That’s really not a concern to me right now, because if you think about it, the NFL is starting to change. The NFL is a passing league, it’s no longer a running league. So you’ve got to find linebackers that are fairly big, but can run and can guard tight ends or guard running backs who are very shifty or fast.
You played running back and linebacker at Washington, but you were originally recruited as a safety, right?
When I first came to the University of Washington, I was recruited as a safety with Justin Wilcox. I had a week or so at safety, and then they said they were going to switch me and another guy, Travis Feeney, to linebacker because they wanted their top guys on the field. That was a hard transition for me, because I didn’t really know much about linebacker. So I was just trying to get my feet wet my first year, and I really had help from John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono. They had already been in the game in college, and just to get feedback from them really helped out.
My first two years I played outside linebacker, and the next year I played inside. The transition from outside to inside is very different. On the inside, you’ve got to deal with the bigger guys coming after you, and you have to use your hands a lot more to get off blocks or strike blocks.
When did you start playing running back?
My junior year was my first year. That’s when we had the coaching change. Coach Peterson came in, and I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. I just asked him straight up, “Coach, what do you think about me playing some offense?” He just [nodded] his head and said, “Yeah, I like that idea.” So at first I was like, well, he’s probably just BS-ing me. Then came spring practice and he was like, “Shaq, come over to running back.” And then I’ve just trusted him ever since.
What made you want to play running back?
Seeing [UCLA’s] Myles Jack do it. He was the first person in the Pac-12 to start it. And I said if he can do it, I know I can do it. So I brought it to his attention and he liked it.
How was that experience?
It was a great experience, man. I really want to thank my offensive linemen, they really just made everything so easy for me. They just opened up the holes. It was really great, honestly. I loved it.
As the NFL Draft approaches, why have you ruled out playing running back at the next level?
I was pretty set at staying at linebacker. I watch all the running backs in the league that take all that pounding. I don’t know if my body can handle all that, I’m not that big as it is. So I’d rather give the blows than take ’em. It’s not good for career longevity.
Did playing all those positions help you be a better linebacker?
Playing all of those positions, it really helped me perfect my game as a player. It really helped me understand the game from different views. From the safety spot, what do you have to understand from there? From linebacker, you have to read from the guard and tackle to the running back, that’s called a triangle. And then just running back, reading defensive linemen and linebackers.
What if a coach sees you as a safety?
How I would respond if they see me as a safety or an outside linebacker is that it’s just the same thing. It just depends on what defense you’re in. Like Kam Chancellor, he’s just like an outside linebacker. He can cover, he can drop down in zones, and he delivers the blow. When I decided to come out, I decided I wanted to play outside linebacker. But it’s not up to me, it’s up to the coaches. If they want me to play safety, I’ll play safety, but my heart is at outside linebacker.
So you’re cool with linebacker?
Like I said, I wouldn’t really have a choice. But I’m shooting for that outside linebacker until [told] otherwise.
Read about the other stars of the 2015 NFL Draft: