Eric Thompson never necessarily thought about playing the position that turned him into a full-time starter for one of the best teams in the Football Championship Subdivision. As a standout defensive back at Southeast High School, Thompson began his career playing opposite current Falcons cornerback Brian Poole and found his way to Division I football by guarding the sideline as part of a deep Southeast secondary.
Thompson did the same during his first season at Youngstown State, starting a handful of games at his usual position for the Penguins until Youngstown made a coaching change. Jamie Bryant entered as YSU’s defensive coordinator between Thompson’s freshman and sophomore seasons. Thompson, the coach figured, could be a piece for Youngstown State in the middle of the field.
“The kind of physicality we had in our county and just that general region we needed to be physical,” Thompson said. “I think that helps us.”
Thompson has seldom missed a start since Bryant moved him to nickel back and Bo Pelini’s coaching staff, which took over before the 2015 season, kept him there. The 6-foot, 215-pound cornerback gave the Penguins to ability to run a dynamic 4-2-5 defense before he tore his right ACL during the final game of the regular season against Missouri State.
The injury will keep Thompson out of the NCAA Division I Football Championship on Saturday against James Madison, although the senior played a critical role in helping Youngstown reach Frisco, Texas. No. 12 Youngstown State allowed more than 24 points once during the regular season and finished with the No. 9 scoring defense by leaning on a group of seniors which made up more than half of the defensive starting lineup.
The deepest group on the Youngstown State defense was its secondary, where the Penguins (12-3) had three starting-quality cornerbacks. Miami’s David Rivers and Fort Myers’ Kenny Bishop have developed into Youngstown’s two starters on the edge, while Thompson’s move to the middle put him on the field immediately and created the possibility for YSU’s defensive alignment.
Career stats Games played: 38 Tackles: 88 Sacks: 2 Tackles for loss: 5 Fumble recoveries: 2 Interceptions: 1 Passes defended: 16
Former Seminoles defensive backs coach Craig Roundtree saw the necessity for this position emerging from afar. He came to the Noles for Thompson’s sophomore year and started teaching him versatility. Rather than just allowing Thompson and his other players to stay along the sideline, he teaches everyone how to play in the middle of the field.
“I tried to get them to understand as much as possible how to play within zone coverage and things like that, and once they picked it up they became much smarter football players,” Roundtree said. “One of the things I always wanted them to be was basically an interchangeable part to where there would be no reason why you could take them off the field.”
Roundtree looks back on his college career and now realizes he was almost a prototype for the 4-2-5 defenses which are rising in popularity. He went to Florida Atlantic as a cornerback, but moved to safety during the spring of his sophomore year when both of the starters were sidelined by injuries. Having three cornerbacks on the field at once, though, let FAU shut down opposing passing attacks.
Thompson began his career similarly. Poole took Thompson under his wing when Poole was a senior and Thompson was a sophomore, and Roundtree saw confidence rub off on Thompson.
“Eric feels like he already has the game wrapped up, he’s ready to go, so on and so forth,” Roundtree said, “and I’m like, ‘Look, man, you’re not done with.’”
For the next three years, Roundtree moved Thompson around the field to have him ready as a cornerback, safety or linebacker, and his ability has caught the eye of multiple coaching staffs in Youngstown, Ohio.
First was Eric Wolford, who coached Youngstown State during Thompson’s first two years with the programs and first moved him into the starting lineup. It was Pelini’s arrival, though, that has lifted the Penguins back to national title contention.
Thompson was as surprised as anyone when Pelini chose Youngstown State after being fired by Nebraska and the new coach got him to buy in quickly. By the end of Pelini’s first meeting with the team, Thompson said, the players were convinced the new regime would push Youngstown State in the right direction.
“Knowing that he was at a big school, he was at a Big 10 school, he was a well-known coach and he had success, I was surprised he would even think about coming here,” Thompson said, “so when he actually came here we kind of knew that we were in for big things.”
But Thompson has had to watch most of this run from the sideline and he will not even be at the championship game. The senior had surgery on his ACL earlier this week and will watch Saturday’s game against the No. 5 Dukes with friends in Ohio.
He isn’t bitter, though. He knows how important a role he’s played during Youngstown State’s rise and still spends weeks in the meeting rooms, trying to provide support in any way he can. Even though Thompson won’t be playing, the precedent he helped set will still be felt.
“We’ve always had the mindset of if we got into the playoffs then we would make a big run, so nobody’s really surprised to be in this situation,” Thompson said. “If they win I’m just happy.”
Who: James Madison (13-1) vs. Youngstown State (12-3)
When: Saturday, noon
Where: Toyota Stadium, Friso, Texas