BOISE — He is only nine games into his Boise State career, with only two starts under his belt, but redshirt freshman safety Darian Thompson is already pushing the Broncos’ senior leaders.
Thompson’s three interceptions lead the team, and that is being used as a tactic to further motivate Boise State’s talented cornerbacks, Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins, who have three interceptions between them this season.
“I’m always going to pit everybody against everybody, I tell them ‘our freshman safety is leading the team in interceptions,’ and I look at Jerrell and Jamar and say ‘are you going to let him do that?’” Boise State defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said.
The 6-foot-1, 197-pound Thompson’s ball skills have been well-honed — he arrived as a cornerback before being moved to safety in the spring, and set his high school’s single-season records with 52 catches, 953 yards and 13 touchdowns as a receiver in 2010.
His ability to seek out the ball was evident early, and has been consistent.
“He’s just one of those guys who has a knack, somehow the ball ends up in his hands,” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “Whether it’s in spring, in practice or whatever, you’re going ‘OK, freshman, that’s kind of a lucky play,’ then it happens again and again and you’re going ‘this guy kind of is a ball hawk.’”
Thompson’s two starts have come in the last two games, against Wyoming and San Diego State, which was made possible with Lee Hightower’s indefinite suspension. He said he hasn’t changed his approach now that he is a starter, with the only real change being that he isn’t able to watch a series or two before coming into the game.
“I’m fitting in great — it’s been fun,” Thompson said. “... I definitely do feel myself getting better, I think it comes with comfort.”
It is no surprise that with a veteran group of corners, Thompson was quickly targeted by opposing offenses. In his first start, Oct. 27 at Wyoming, on the Cowboys’ second pass of the game, they went at Thompson and completed a 32-yard strike on a third-and-9.
The next pass that went at Thompson, he broke up, and he added five tackles in a game where the Broncos held the Cowboys to 138 passing yards after a 78-yard first quarter.
“He didn’t blink — that was one play, and the rest of the game he played excellent,” Lake said.
If future opponents seek to throw it at Thompson, he and his coach are confident enough in his skills to where it’s an enticing opportunity.
“He welcomes that challenge — (San Diego State) went at him last game, and he picked it off,” Lake said. “I’m sure he’s hoping they throw it his way … . If that happens, that’d be great for me and him.”
All three of Thompson’s interceptions have come in the last five games. His interception last week against San Diego State set up the Broncos at midfield late in the third quarter, but the offense did not convert in the 21-19 loss.
Clearly, stepping into a starting role has allowed Thompson to do what he does best.
“I’ve had more chances to make plays,” he said.
In his first career game, Aug. 31 at Michigan State, Thompson saw a little extra duty when safety Jeremy Ioane was slowed by an illness. He had six tackles and recovered a fumble — again, the ball found him.
Lake noted that he handled a tough environment and has continued to improve since.
“He’s a veteran now, I don’t even think of him as a freshman,” Lake said.