LEWISTON, Idaho – Jalen Thompson’s No. 34 is no longer lurking in Washington State’s secondary.
Even if they’d prefer the player instead of his spirit, the Cougars are glad to see the safety’s attitude and work ethic ever-present in the defensive backfield.
Thompson’s departure from WSU was as swift and sudden as departures come – the bona fide leader of the Cougars’ secondary one day, an NFL hopeful the next.
In July, the NCAA revoked his final year of college eligibility because the safety allegedly purchased an over-the-counter supplement at a local nutrition store.
Thompson shifted his goals, from anchoring the Cougars’ back end one last time to preparing for the NFL’s supplemental draft, where the Arizona Cardinals eventually made him a fifth-round pick.
Most standout players leave a trail of hints to indicate their departure – or simply run out of eligibility – but Thompson’s teammates had little time to brace for his. Not just that, it left the Cougars with four short weeks, and around 25 practices, to locate his replacement.
Six days into fall camp, that search is still ongoing.
“Man, that hurt,” strong safety Bryce Beekman said. “If I’m being honest with you, that really hurt. I was looking forward to playing with him, but God works in mysterious ways. He’s playing with the Cardinals now, his dream came true to play in the NFL. So proud of Jalen, but it is what it is.”
As he left, Thompson delivered messages of encouragement to each of the WSU teammates wishing him well, and placed a vote of confidence in the defensive secondary that would be moving on without the hard-hitting safety.
“Don’t worry Wazzu gone be straight. We got absolute dogs in that secondary,” he wrote on Twitter.
Thompson assigned leadership duties to one of his compatriots, telling nickel Skyler Thomas, “This yo defense now step up and be that leader that they need.”
Those words are surely still ringing in Thomas’ head, but six days into fall camp, the redshirt junior is still getting used to patrolling a secondary without Thompson at his side, and simultaneously trying to fill many of the voids his teammate left.
“That was one of my best friends on the team,” Thomas said. “That’s my brother, my roommate, but I just know he’s cheering for me. I’m cheering for him and he’s somewhere better making money playing this game. So, it feels a little different but it was going to come eventually.”
But even though the Cougars don’t bring back Thompson, his cabinet of accolades or his 191 career tackles, his teammates have picked up many of his best attributes. In his three seasons on the Palouse, the safety left an imprint on about everyone he played with, showing some of them how to lead, others how to hit and just about all of them how to practice properly.
“Here’s the hardest thing to replace with Jalen, is I’ve never had a player practice as hard as he did every day,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “It didn’t matter what we were wearing, he came every day ready to practice. And everybody has a bad day now and then. Not Jalen.
“They see him and Skyler’s done a great job with that, Marcus Strong’s done a great job with that and we’ll develop enough leaders. I’ve never worried about leadership.”
The Cougars brought in a quartet of junior college transfer defensive backs this offseason and three – Beekman (strong safety), Daniel Isom (free safety) and Derrick Langford (cornerback) – could be in line for starting roles, alongside senior cornerback Strong, when WSU opens the season on Aug. 31. For now, it’s Isom taking the No. 1 reps at Thompson’s free safety position, although redshirt freshman Tyreses Ross is right on his heels.
Beekman, Isom and Langford didn’t spend more than a few months playing with Thompson, but it seemed every rep next to the now-Arizona Cardinal was just as priceless as the next.
“Me just getting here, I was just excited to play with him because of what he brought to the table,” Isom said. “Everybody knows what type of player he is and stuff and he wished us the best, so everybody just wants to pick up the slack for him.
“He always went hard, whatever he did, he did it to the max. He was a vocal guy, too. He let us know what we’re doing wrong, trying to help out the younger guys, bring them along.”
Thompson’s example may have been just as crucial as his production.
“That example, it created a standard that as new guys on the team, they better uphold,” WSU head coach Mike Leach said.
If not, they’ll surely hear it from Thompson.