Boise State's Thompson takes the lead at safety

The sophomore has grown into a reliableplaymaker for BSU.

ccripe@idahostatesman.com © 2013 Idaho StatesmanAugust 29, 2013 

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Boise State defensive back Darian Thompson intercepts a pass intended for San Diego State tight end Gavin Escobar Saturday Nov. 3, 2012 at Bronco Stadium in Boise.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com

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The first time Paraclete High coach Norm Dahlia met Darian Thompson, he was a 5-foot-10, 100-pound eighth-grader.

The friend who introduced them told Dahlia he was “a very special youth football player.”

“I went back to my wife and kind of giggled,” Dahlia said.

The first time Boise State coach Chris Petersen met Thompson, he was a 160-pounder going into his senior year of high school. Petersen told Dahlia that Thompson needed to fill out if he was going to get a college scholarship.

“We put him on a nutrition program and he started lifting,” Dahlia said, “and the next thing you know he was 182 pounds.”

The first time Boise State defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake got Thompson on the practice field, he knew he needed to find a spot for him in the rotation. He moved the once too-small-to-be-taken-seriously redshirt freshman to safety — not necessarily a permanent move.

“I wanted to find a way to get him on the football field,” Lake said.

Now a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder, Thompson has established himself as one of the Broncos’ most important players going into Saturday’s season opener at Washington (8:05 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

Thompson is the starting free safety and despite his youth has developed into one of the leaders of an inexperienced defense.

“He’s really almost an extension of me out there,” Lake said. “He knows our defensive game plan that well. And we trust him with a lot of information.”

Thompson started the final six games last season. He replaced Lee Hightower, who was suspended and eventually dismissed from the team, and the defense never wavered. The Broncos led the nation with four passing touchdowns allowed.

Thompson faces a different challenge this year. Instead of fitting into an established defense, he needs to help mold the defense of the future.

“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “When things aren’t going too well, I need to be the one to pick the team up and let them know everything will be good and let them know I have their back. And I know they have mine.”

Thompson leads with a quiet intensity on the field and has built credibility with teammates through his physical, reliable play. He also sets an example off the field with a dedication to the meeting room that dates to high school, when he used to watch video with Dahlia.

“We’ve had so many guys like him over the years,” Petersen said, “where in the recruiting process I even think we were a little bit full at his position. At one time we talked about grayshirting him. We actually ended up bringing him in and he turns out to be a really good player for us. It’s because he was a very focused, conscientious, hard-working guy. He cares.”

Thompson grew up in Palmdale, Calif. Football was his first sport — he started at 7 — but at one time he figured he would go to college as a lefthanded pitcher. He could throw about 85 mph, he said.

Instead, he found his place on the football field. He played quarterback and safety on the junior varsity as a freshman at Paraclete. He moved up as a sophomore and started at cornerback for two seasons.

As a senior, Dahlia used him as a specialist.

“If I had a receiver who we were going against who was a Division I prospect, we put Darian on him,” Dahlia said. “And nobody, nobody, scored on Darian. And if not, he played free safety and he was my general out there. … He was one of the best safeties I’ve ever seen in high school.”

Boise State found him when running backs coach Keith Bhonapha visited Paraclete to recruit a defensive end. Dahlia asked him to watch Thompson’s highlights.

“He made me play it three or four times,” Dahlia said.

Intrigued, the Broncos invited Thompson to their summer high school football camp. Dahlia and the Paraclete principal drove him there.

That fall, linebackers coach Bob Gregory attended a Paraclete game. Two days later, on Halloween, Petersen called Thompson with his first college scholarship offer.

“I committed on the phone,” Thompson said.

He arrived as a cornerback but moved to safety in spring 2012, shortly after Lake joined the staff. He quickly earned the playmaker label — and it showed throughout the season.

Thompson tied for second on the team with three interceptions, broke up three passes and recovered a fumble. He finished eighth with 43 tackles despite starting less than half the year.

He also showed a knack for the big hit — he’s no 100-pounder anymore.

“He’s very, very tough,” Lake said. “He’s a good open-field tackler. He started off as a corner, so he has corner skills. He can cover tight ends. He can cover slot receivers. But at the same time, he can roam the field like an intimidating free safety. So I’m really excited to watch him progress this season.”

Thompson, like he did his senior year of high school, has been one of the Broncos’ top workers in the weight room the past two summers. That has transformed his physique.

And he’s inching his way up Lake’s “football levels.”

“He’s probably at Football 301 right now,” Lake said. “I’ll keep giving him more information.”

Thompson digests that information and distributes it to his teammates.

His goal this year: no missed assignments in pass coverage.

“He’s sort of a field general in that back end,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “He’s very demonstrative when he communicates the calls and what we’ve got to do back there, the adjustments. For a guy who came in and was really this sort of quiet guy, just going about his business, he’s really turned into a nice leader.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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