By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Corey Thompson has heard plenty of old man jokes.
Some are funny, others are not. Corey used to live in the old Tiger Stadium dorms; he remembers the invention of the forward pass because he was there;
You get the drift.
It comes with the territory when you’re a 23-year-old, sixth-year senior on a team that’s deployed 19 true freshmen — each of them teenagers — through two games this season. Half the roster was still in high school when he graduated in 2015.
But no joke illustrates the winding road that has been Thompson’s college career better than a simple statement of fact from one of his longest-tenured teammates.
Safety John Battle, a fourth-year junior, is one of two veterans referred to as “Pa-pas” in the defensive back room along with classmate Ed Paris.
“So Corey, he was my mentor when I came here,” Battle laughed.
To Thompson, that must feel like a lifetime ago.
An elite recruit out of Texas, Thompson saw the field as a true freshman safety in a 2012 secondary that included a first-round draft pick in Ed Reid and a future professionals Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins. He cracked the starting lineup in 2013 before a knee injury ended his season and cost him 2014.
Thompson returned as a major contributor in 2015 and beefed up that offseason to play outside linebacker in Dave Aranda’s new defense. But another devastating injury suffered in camp forced him to take a medical redshirt last season and hope the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility.
It did, which turned out to be bad news for opposing quarterbacks.
Now healthy, Thompson has been a revelation for LSU as its starting ‘Field’ outside linebacker. He’s started the first two games of the season and presently leads the Tigers with 3.5 sacks.
Teammates, upperclassmen and young guys alike, couldn’t be happier for the unit’s resident old man who has overcome more injuries than he can list just to make it back on the football field.
“Just watching him blossom and ball the way he is, I’m proud of him,” Battle said. “He’s finally healthy, and I always knew he had it in him. It was just a matter of him staying healthy, and I’m just happy to see him ball.”
“He’s just been so patient,” linebacker Devin White added. “I told Michael Divinity, ‘God is just blessing (Thompson).’ He never talked; he never got down. He was always humble. It’s just his time now. He’s always been athletic. He came from safety, so he can move. It’s hard to block an ex-safety playing outside linebacker with a lot of power.”
Though the injuries have repeatedly put his promising career on hold, Thompson at least made the most of the leg injury that kept him out all of last season.
Thompson spent the lost year honing his craft at outside linebacker. Anybody who looks at his impressive physique can see how athletically gifted and powerful Thompson in, so he dedicated himself to make his final go-round count.
His top priority was becoming a better pass rusher. He’d seen the ‘F’ linebacker spot come off the field last season on passing downs and knew it was an area of his game that needed to be elevated if he was going to play a full complement of snaps once he got back in form.
It’s not something a safety typically spends a lot of time on, so Thompson went to school on the best of the best, studying film of Denver Bronco All-Pro Von Miller. He also paid special attention LSU’s own dominant edge rusher during film sessions.
“No. 49 on the other side. I watched a lot of his film,” he said, referring to Arden Key. “I watched Von Miller. What struck me about Von Miller was hit get-off. I realized it when I watched the Super Bowl against the Panthers: he gets get-off sacks. I want to be disruptive like him. So I watch him, I watch Arden and I’ve got some of my own stuff I’m working on right now.”
It’s perhaps an odd bit of fate that Thompson’s career renaissance is happening as LSU continues to await Key’s return. LSU has been taking a pass rush by committee approach in Key’s absence, and Thompson has led the charge as LSU racked up eight sacks over two games without him.
LSU came up with five sacks in Saturday night’s 45-10 rout of UT-Chattanooga without the services of Key, its top rusher, and Rashard Lawrence, arguably the team’s best defensive linemen. Freshmen K’Lavon Chaisson, Key’s heir apparent, accounted for two of those.
Whenever Key returns — which LSU hopes will be next week against Mississippi State — it’ll leave Aranda with the kind of problem defensive coordinators dream about: an abundance of talented edge rushers.
The answer could be more of the ‘Cheetah’ package LSU has featured early on this season.
Instead of pulling the ‘F’ linebacker in nickel packages, as LSU did last year, the package deploys just two defensive linemen with a full complement of four linebackers and five defensive backs. It gets more speed on the field and disguises what Aranda plans to do with it.
The idea of deploying some combination of Key, Chaisson and Thompson along with White, who has shown his own knack for blitzing, is a tantalizing one that presents real problems for opposing offenses.
“I don’t see anybody in the country blocking us because we’ve got so many great athletes,” White said. “We’ve just got to feed off each other and play within Coach Aranda’s scheme. He’s going to get us open. He’s going to get us where we need to be.”
It’s not something LSU wants to overuse, but given its current personnel, the package will certainly play a role as LSU heads to Starkville next weekend and has to deal with Mississippi State star Nick Fitzgerald.
“So we are very careful in what we do,” Orgeron said last week. “But certain situations, we are going to put four fast guys in there and let them go.”
And Thompson, though a bit long in the tooth comparatively, is showing the world he belongs in that group.