Beating the odds on the football field isn't anything new for Johnny Thompson. The redshirt sophomore linebacker comes from a high school program that is synonymous with overcoming obstacles. As a star at Detroit Crockett, Thompson helped continue the young program's winning tradition n spite of the absence of a locker room, a weight room, or a suitable practice field. The experience toughened the youngster and it was that toughness that helped him fight through a disappointing spring that saw him sidelined for an extended period of time due to injury.
"The injury occurred in the first scrimmage," Thompson recalled. "I hurt my elbow when a DB and a fullback hit it when I was reaching to make a tackle. As far as that goes, I've been rehabbing. I'm 100% now. Going into camp I'm 100%. I'm in better shape than I was last year. I'm quicker, stronger, and I'm just ready to go into camp and show what I can do this fall."
Thompson offered a glimpse of his playmaking potential against Iowa last season, registering a career high eight tackles, including three for loss. The 6-1, 231-pounder displayed his penchant for dolling out punishment against the Hawkeye ball-carriers, but that performance was not enough to garner him more playing time. The very next week the Maize and Blue played Northwestern, and Thompson's absence from the lineup offered a clue as to why he wasn't seeing the field more.
"They were just telling me last year that I needed to focus more on my pass coverage because, as we know, I'm a great run stopper," he said. "I needed to focused more on my pass coverage and that's what I've been focusing on since last season."
The arm injury may have prevented him from honing his skills during live contact drills, but he still spent a great deal of time studying both film and his playbook to enhance the mental aspects of his game.
"It's just knowing the reads because my speed is good enough," Thompson said the key to improving his ability to cover the pass. "Just being where I'm supposed to be…not getting sucked in on the play action. I improved reading coverages, knowing what I'm supposed to be doing, where I'm supposed to be, and recognizing pass and run."
One major factor that sped up Thompson's progress was the simplified approach of new defensive coordinator Ron English.
"Last year we had A LOT of defenses," Thompson recalled. "That was hard for me to adjust to coming from Detroit. We didn't go over that much stuff. It's less stress on me now and I know what I'm doing."
Thompson also pointed to new linebacker coach Steve Szabo as one of the catalysts to his development.
"He's all about technique," said Thompson regarding his new position coach. "He will tell you, 'people in the NFL aren't always the best athletes. So long as you know what you're doing and you're in great shape…you're a better player.' He loves tough guys. If you're a tough you can play for him. As long as you know what you're doing you're going to get a fair chance. It's up to you whether you're going to play or not.
"It has lightened up a bit," Thompson continued regarding the atmosphere on the team. "Last year I was more tense about going to say something to a coach about how I felt. Now I know I can go to him and speak my mind. I'm just ready to play."
Thompson entered the fall on the depth chart at both MIKE and WILL. When asked if he had a preference, the youngster made it clear that where he lines up doesn't matter.
"My preference is to just get on the field period," he said matter of factly. "That's what I'm trying to do. I know I'm behind the eight ball right because I missed spring ball, but to me it's just a mental thing right now. Just get back on the field. I've worked hard and that's what I plan to do."