SEATTLE -- When Keith Heyward heard the question, he had to laugh.
It was simple, but not easily answered: How good is safety Shaq Thompson?
“Pretty good,” said Heyward, Washington's defensive backs coach, punctuating his understated response with a wry smile. “He’s pretty good.”
Thompson, rated the No. 16 prospect in the ESPN 150 coming out of Sacramento (Calif.) Grant this year, is good enough to crack the starting lineup as a freshman. He is good enough that the Huskies’ base defense is becoming their nickel package. He is good enough to make impressive plays in every practice.
“It showed up early on, picking the ball off, batting it down, making a tackle for a loss and not always 100 percent knowing exactly what’s going on, but just having some football instincts,” Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “The guy’s got a lot to learn, but he’s got really good tools.”
Heyward added, “He’s a great athlete. He’s big. He’s fast. He can run.”
Thompson has experienced the struggles all freshmen face while learning Division I defenses and adapting to the speed of the game, but he has done enough to force his way onto the field.
Washington will continue to let him learn in real time, starting Saturday in the season opener against San Diego State at CenturyLink Field.
“He’s still a freshman,” Wilcox said. “He’s been here a month, but some of the things he can do physically are pretty impressive. Now he’s got to continue to learn how to play the game.”
Like the rest of Washington’s freshmen, Thompson hasn’t been allowed to speak with the media, so his teammates and coaches are often asked about what they’ve seen from him so far.
He has impressed junior safety Sean Parker: “He’s a very physical specimen. He’s aggressive. He just loves the game of football. He is constantly being a student of the game, always willing to learn and he just shows that on the field.”
And quarterback Keith Price said, “Man, there’s a lot of things that I haven’t seen with a guy that big that can move the way he does and the ball skills that he presents. He’s definitely a tremendous talent and a great attribute to our defense.”
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Thompson has the size to play linebacker, along with the speed and coverage skills to play safety.
With linebackers dealing with injuries throughout fall camp, combined with Thompson's play, Washington’s coaching staff decided its nickel package provided the best way to get the program’s top 11 defensive playmakers on the field at the same time.
“We feel like he’s one of those 11 guys,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We’re just trying to find a role for him.”
Safety remains as Thompson’s primary position, but he has spent enough time with the linebackers to understand his assignments when asked to come up and support the run.
He is the kind of player who can pressure the quarterback on one play before picking off a pass on the next.
But -- as good as he has been and as good as he will be -- it is going to take time, and a few mistakes, before Thompson finds his fit as a freshman.
Until he reaches that point, Sarkisian is confident Thompson’s playmaking ability can carry him.
“He’s just a dynamic football player,” Sarkisian said.