A highly touted commit in the 2020 Texas football recruiting class, the now rising junior safety and former blue-chip prospect Jerrin Thompson could be facing the most important season of his career yet in 2022. Thompson is about to get an opportunity this fall that he has yet to be confronted with in his career to date. And that is the chance to play in the same scheme under the same defensive coordinator for two years in a row.
In the first season of his collegiate career, Thompson got to play under defensive coordinator/safeties coach Chris Ash during the 2020 campaign. But Ash wasn’t even the DC that was there with the Longhorns during Thompson’s recruitment out of high school.
It was former Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando that held this position at the time when Thompson was recruited out of Lufkin High School.
This inconsistency in defensive coordinators, and thus somewhat of a displacement in schemes, continued last year when Texas replaced Ash with Pete Kwiatkowski. Texas hired Kwiatkowski as a co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach to replace Ash, which was followed by some real excitement about the impact he could have on this side of the ball.
But Texas struggled as much as ever in recent memory on this side of the ball in Kwiatkowski’s first year as the defensive play-caller. Kwiatkowski clearly didn’t have the personnel necessary to get the job done last year. There were also some players that were clearly struggling to fully grasp the concepts of Kwiatkowski’s defensive scheme last fall.
Thompson seemed to be one of those players for the Longhorns’ defense last season that struggled to find a place right away in the Kwiatkowski defense. The first half of last season wasn’t too kind to Thompson, posting one of the worst defensive grades of any six-game stretch of his career to date.
But can you really blame Thompson for some of the struggles he faced in the first half of last season?
Just as Thompson started to find his stride as a hybrid free safety in the latter stretch of his freshman campaign, yet another defensive philosophy change was thrown at the young DB. Thompson was realistically going to need at least a couple of months of live-game reps to get accustomed to the third defensive scheme he knew for the Longhorns in as many years.
Now, that doesn’t excuse all of the issues we saw from Thompson in the first half of last season. But it does serve as a lesson to be learned that Texas can’t have an overreliance on young and unproven defensive backs amid such extreme defensive coordinator turnover.
So, what exactly went wrong for Thompson early last season, and what proof is there that Thompson can continue to right the ship in 2022?
Let’s start with what went wrong for Thompson last fall.
What to watch for from Texas football S Jerrin Thompson in 2022?
First off, Thompson struggled with frequent missed tackles. He posted the highest missed tackle rate among the usual starters in the first half of last season. Thompson missed well over 30 percent of his tackle attempts in the first six games of last season.
Poor approaches and weak wrap-up attempts at the point of contact with the ball carrier led to most of the missed tackles we saw from Thompson during that tough stretch last fall. These missed tackles were also issues for Thompson both after dropping back in pass coverage and coming up to defend against the run.
Missed tackles were an issue for multiple Texas safeties last season, though. In fact, Thompson and senior safety B.J. Foster were the only two regular starters for this Texas defense that had more missed tackles than stops in 2021.
Another issue from Thompson in the first half of last season was the ability to just make an impact play. If you look at the first three games of Big 12 play alone, Thompson didn’t register a single pass breakup, quarterback pressure, tackle for loss, forced turnover, and/or run stuff.
For much of last season, Texas’ defense was lacking playmakers that could shift the tide of momentum, especially when this team needed it the most late in games. Thompson’s apparent lack of visibility for this defense in the early phases of Big 12 play last year didn’t help this issue.
However, there are a few reasons why the Longhorns faithful should be optimistic about what lies ahead for Thompson this fall. The biggest reason to assume that Thompson will make some necessary strides this fall hinges on this staff finding a better for him permanently from here on out.
In all likelihood, Thompson will challenge for reps either as a deep safety or nickelback. Thompson’s ranginess theoretically makes him a capable deep safety to act as a last line of defense for this secondary. But Thompson’s flat-out speed and hard-hitting nature should make him a natural fit as a nickelback in Coach K’s defense.
Thompson’s issues in terms of his role in this defense last year aren’t due to a lack of ability from the former blue-chip recruit. Instead, Thompson wasn’t given the proper time to develop and find his natural fit in the back end of this defense.
That appears to be changing now. Texas has more depth in the secondary this year compared to the last two seasons. Thompson isn’t going to be thrust into a crucial role where he’s asked to do multiple things he hasn’t proven himself able to handle on a consistent basis right out of the gates this fall.
Instead, I believe Thompson will be able to take rotational reps out of the gates this fall in the secondary either getting manageable reps as a nickelback or deep safety.
Thompson proved last season that he can produce at a higher level more consistently when he’s taking on just one specialized role at a time instead of being asked to do multiple things on every single play. In the back half of last season, Thompson wasn’t being asked to be a do-it-all free safety as the was at times early on.
In the second half of last season, Thompson gave the Longhorns a defensive grade that ranked among the top half of DBs on the team in that stretch, a missed tackle rate that was nearly cut in half compared to the first half, three pass breakups, two tackles for loss, two quarterback pressures, and roughly 33 percent more stops.
And that all came while Thompson took roughly 75 percent as many defensive snaps in the second half of the season compared with the first.
Thompson was able to prove to be a more impactful safety/nickel that roughly cut his mistakes in terms of missed tackles in half down the stretch last season when he was placed in a more specialized role.
If Thompson can settle in down the stretch last season after having a rough start, he should be able to really find his stride in Year 2 under Coach K. This will be the first time that Thompson gets to really dig in and find his role in a consistent defensive scheme. He also won’t have the same pressure placed on his shoulders to do so much for this secondary right away in 2022.
The trendline in Thompson’s numbers points nowhere but up heading into the 2022 regular season. He might not be the most important DB on this roster this year, but he has the ability to make one of the biggest impacts as a specialized safety given his gifted physical tools and versatility.
All in all, Thompson improved his defensive grade, tackling grade, and coverage grade, across the board over the course of the last two seasons. The year-over-year improvement is there, despite some of the visible issues on the field for Thompson last fall.
I firmly expect that improvement to continue this fall after a solid run in spring ball and a better than anticipated finish to last season for Thompson. Watch out for him to sneakily become one of the underrated breakout players for the Longhorns in 2022.