- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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De'Andre Thompkins strolled through the gym of his old high school in Swansboro, N.C., last week, decked out in blue Penn State sweats, and embraced his coach.
Before the Nittany Lions’ early enrollee could explain how snow still littered the sidewalks up north or the makeup of his new classes, football coach Tim Laspada had a question waiting for his former pupil. He had read -- incorrectly, it turns out -- that another Penn State player had clocked a faster 40-yard-dash time, so he wondered aloud how that could happen.
“What’s up with you not being the fastest guy?” Laspada remembered asking.
Thompkins’ eyes widened: “I had the fastest time. By far. 4.4s.”
Laspada shook his head -- but not in disbelief. Thompkins had clocked a 4.38 several times during combines at high school, so the coach actually wanted to know why the Nittany Lions’ fastest time wasn’t any faster.
“Coach,” Thompkins told him. “I gained 10 pounds.”
Laspada laughed while recalling the exchange. That answer seemed to satisfy him and, like a lot of Penn State fans these days, he’s expecting a lot from the 5-foot-11, 171-pound freshman receiver. Penn State coach James Franklin said Monday, hours before Penn State’s first spring practice, that he believed freshmen could contribute immediately at both receiver and cornerback.
That statement wasn’t surprising, considering Big Ten receiver of the year Allen Robinson -- who accounted for 46 percent of last season’s passing offense -- left for the NFL. The Nittany Lions need to make up for that lost production somewhere, and Thompkins is the new face who’s already turning heads.
Thompkins sprinted from one end of the field to the other during Monday afternoon’s first spring practice, and he took turns fielding kicks indoors before focusing on receiver. He didn’t drop a ball, but some catches and returns didn’t hit his hands cleanly.
“Ahh, trust that technique!” assistant coach Charles Huff said, clapping his hands. And later: “Not bad. Getting a lot better.”
Thompkins moved like a Tecmo Bowl character back in high school, posting a 40-yard kick return average as a junior and senior. He’d switch directions so often that defenders would lose him one by one until he’d find that inevitable seam down the sideline.
That speed -- he clocked a laser-timed 4.46 at a Nike camp -- separated him when he donned his blue Pirates helmet in high school. And it’s separating him again.
Laspada remembers accompanying Thompkins on a recruiting visit to Penn State months ago when they stopped by the weight room. Near the back, past painted mantras such as “Iron Lion” and “Hair on Fire,” lay a big board with the team’s top 40 times. Robinson’s name was first, next to a 4.47.
“I remember looking at that board and I said, ‘De’Andre, you can beat all those times right now,’ ” Laspada said. “And I told Coach [Bill] O’Brien, ‘He’s faster than anyone on your team right now.’ ”
Despite Thompkins’ speed, the one thing he can’t race past is a steep learning curve. He focused on playing quarterback and tailback in high school, so the transition to receiver will be fraught with rookie mistakes and new lessons. Route-running is the primary concern, but he received a lot of coaching from Christian Hackenberg and his fellow wideouts to overcome that quickly.
“He’s the fastest guy on the team,” Franklin said. “So being able to get the ball in his hands is going to very, very important. But there is more to the game than just being fast. It’s the mental aspect, it’s the maturity aspect and it’s the physical perspective of it.”
When asked about Thompkins’ specific 40-time, Franklin just smiled: “Fast. Yeah, very fast. Very fast.” He's best in open space, and Laspada believed he could be utilized plenty on jet sweeps and bubble screens. He could be one of the spark plugs this offense is searching for -- but he has a long way to go.
Still, as evidenced by Franklin's stopwatch, he’s certainly off to a fast start.