- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Despite making a huge impact on a defense that shaved off an average of 11 points per game between 2011 and 2012, Shaq Thompson doesn't feel like he did much. Despite earning Pac-12 honorable mention as a true freshman, he felt more like a supporting player than a leading man.
All that changes in 2013, the highly touted sophomore proclaimed.
"I feel like I could do more on the field," Thompson said after a recent practice. "It was my first year and I felt more like I was helping rather than doing. I feel like I could have contributed way more. There were games where I felt like I could have left more on the field.
"Sophomore year, I'm going to leave it on the field every game. Go hard or go home."
Appearing in all 13 games last season, Thompson totaled 74 tackles (44 solo) and was second on the team with 8.5 tackles for a loss. He also shared the team high with three interceptions. Defining Thompson isn't always easy. He's been called a safety, a nickelback and a linebacker. He joked that it just depends what day of the week it is. Because in truth -- while he's officially a linebacker -- the Huskies want him to be that versatile of a player.
It's what's expected when one of the top recruits in the country commits to your school.
"When I got here, they put a lot on me," he said. "But I took it. When you're highly recruited, you just have to drop all of those stars and you have to play. You have to grow up on the field."
Like all rookies, Thompson said one of the biggest adjustments was the speed of the game. He said it took him about three games to really grasp the ebb and flow of college football. But there were also the mental aspects that needed re-tooling. As a successful prep player, he sometimes had to subdue his instincts to try to be all over the field at once.
"In high school, you run Cover 2 and man up the rest of the way and you can do a lot more," he said. "Here, you realize that there are 10 other guys on the field and they are all really good. You have to trust your brothers. Trust your family. Focus on your assignment. Because if you miss your assignment, it could be a busted play and go for a touchdown and that's on you. Don't worry about anybody else's assignment. Worry about yourself."
While Thompson learned on the job, so did the defense around him. Washington made huge strides under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox -- catapulting from 106th in defense in 2011 to 31st in 2012. The year before they allowed 35.9 points per game compared to 24.1 last season.
Those numbers are nice, but they didn't help at the end of the year when the Huskies dropped their final two games. The first was an overtime upset loss to rival Washington State in the Apple Cup -- a game where the defense blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead. Then in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas they rallied from an early 18-3 deficit to eventually go ahead late in the fourth. But they couldn't hold and fell 28-26 to Boise State.
"It hurt. It's frustrating," Thompson said. "We still think about those games. They were big and we let up. We should have had those. We let up in the Apple Cup and we let up against Boise State. But all we can do is learn from it and build off it."
This year, look for Thompson to spend more time up in the box since he's officially been slotted as a linebacker. While he's versatile enough to step back in the secondary, he believes this plays better to skill set. And his mentality.
"I like the contact," he said. "I like to get physical. The hard part is taking on the linemen. Those guys are 100 pounds more than you so you really have to work with your hands and learn to get off blocks. It gets mean down in the trenches."