As Huskies host UCLA, it’s Shaq Thompson vs. Myles Jack
Shaq Thompson is scheduled to play on offense and defense Saturday when Washington battles No. 18 UCLA, which features its own versatile talent in Myles Jack, the former Bellevue High School star.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The topic — Shaq Thompson, multitalented marvel — is a popular one. For the Huskies, their fans and even for an opposing coach, he is easy to love.
Finding ways to best maximize and balance Thompson’s many talents hasn’t been quite as easy for Washington coaches.
“Believe it or not, he’s a human being,” UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. “He does get tired.”
Thompson is scheduled to play on offense and defense Saturday when Washington (6-3, 2-3 Pac-12) hosts No. 18 UCLA (7-2, 4-2), which features its own versatile talent in Myles Jack, the former Bellevue High School star.
They are the two pre-eminent two-way players in college football, and they’re scheduled to spend at least some time Saturday evening trying to take each other down. Shaq vs. Jack — two heavyweights hitting their stride and just about anyone else standing in their way — is as compelling a storyline as there’s been for a UW game in some time.
“There’s no part of me that’s anxious to see Shaq running the ball,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “The guy’s a good ballplayer, man. We recruited him hard coming out of high school, and I loved him as a player; I loved him as a person. And for anyone that’s a fan of good football players, you have to be a fan of Shaq Thompson.”
Jack, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound sophomore, was heavily recruited to the Huskies by former coach Steve Sarkisian, and Jack’s host on his official visit was none other than Thompson, now a 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior.
“I guess it’s just me and him (as two-way players) right now,” Jack told reporters in Los Angeles this week. “He knows how it feels to go back and forth, learning two different playbooks, playing over 100 snaps. ... We should start our own little group, make T-shirts, profit from it when we get to the next level.”
Adding intrigue to Jack’s return to Seattle was his taunting of the Huskies last season at the Rose Bowl. Jack rushed for four touchdowns in UCLA’s 41-31 victory, and after one score he turned to the UW sideline and licked his fingers, as if to say, “How does that taste?”
Jack said the animosity he felt toward UW was “mutual,” but he vowed to keep his emotions in check this week.
“It was immature, looking back on it,” he said. “My emotions were running high, and I felt it was appropriate.”
Jack, like Thompson an outside linebacker, hasn’t played as much offense this season. He’s carried the ball just 22 times for 71 yards and two touchdowns, though he did have a season-high six carries in UCLA’s victory over Arizona last week. Jack is averaging 3.2 yards per carry this season; Thompson is averaging 7.9 yards on his 45 carries.
When Jack first emerged as a two-way player midway through last season, it was because injuries had depleted UCLA’s running-back depth.
The same situation has played out for UW this season. With running backs Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman both injured, Thompson was called upon for a career-high 21 carries for 98 yards against Arizona State two weeks ago. In UW’s victory at Colorado last Saturday, he didn’t play a single snap on defense but finished with 215 all-purpose yards on 15 carries and two receptions.
UW coach Chris Petersen said this week Thompson is the best all-around football player he’s coached, and the Huskies’ junior star started to pick up a bit more Heisman buzz.
Ultimately, it’s up to Petersen each week to decide how much of a load Thompson will carry on each side of the ball.
“We’ve got to pick and choose our spots and ... not overwhelm him,” Petersen said.
Both coaching staffs say they monitor Thompson and Jack closely during games, trying to keep them fresh and effective.
Because he’s their best option at running back — and probably their best option on offense, period — Thompson will continue primarily in that role, but he is in the game plan this week to help out in certain situations on defense.
“He’s a smart enough guy that he can handle both,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said.
It wasn’t until two weeks ago that Thompson starting working full-time as a running back in practice. Before that, he would only get an occasional practice period with the offense, all of which makes his performance the past two weeks — 272 yards on 36 carries — that much more impressive.
“He might just go to the NFL as a running back,” teammate Hau’oli Kikaha said.
As the games unfold, it’s up to Bhonapha, UW’s running-backs coach, and Bob Gregory, the linebackers coach, to keep tabs on Thompson and manage how and where to use him. Thompson, too, is one of UW’s most valuable special-teams performers (he had a tackle on punt coverage against Colorado), and he’ll likely continue in that role.
“We’re constantly in collaboration, saying ‘OK, what’s the best way to get this done?’ ” Bhonapha said. “As you guys know, and as we definitely know, it’s hard. You have to balance it out.”
Both Thompson and Jack say they prefer to play defense.
“I have a defensive mentality,” Thompson said after the victory over Colorado. “It’s always defense first. Everyone loves hitting people.”
Surely, they would love to hit each other Saturday.
“Hopefully,” Jack said. “I’ll get a chance to tackle him and he’ll get a chance to tackle me. That’ll make the game interesting.”