HUNTINGTON – When Gary Thompson arrived in Marshall’s football program in the summer of 2012, he was still a few months shy of his 18th birthday.
You might say Thompson had another arrival – of sorts – on Nov. 29, 2013, when he burst into Herd fans’ consciousness at Edwards Stadium with two interceptions of East Carolina’s Shane Carden – as a redshirt freshman defensive end — in Marshall’s Conference USA East Division-clinching romp. One pick went for a 5-yard touchdown.
Last season as a junior, it was another arrival, as Thompson finally got into the starting lineup at Fox (rush end) for the final 12 games in Marshall’s 10-3 season, leading Coach Doc Holliday’s team with 12.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and 16 quarterback hurries while earning All-C-USA honorable mention status.
That brings Thompson up to speed – which he has plenty of, by the way – not to mention his recent Dunfee Weight Room bench press of 485 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Thompson has gone from 210 pounds at his arrival on campus to a 255-pounder.
He’s gone from an academic non-qualifier to finishing his degree in Sports Management and Marketing this summer, prior to his senior season. And he’ll take classes this fall to get a second major, in Health Science, before beginning winter preparations as a pro football hopeful.
And in the ESPN College Football 2016 magazine, Thompson was picked as the Herd’s “most important player,” among one for each of the 13 C-USA programs.
Thompson, three months shy of his 22nd birthday, has come a long way … and that apropos for a guy who made a trip of 2,250 miles from his La Mesa, Calif., home to play for the Herd.
“That first year (sitting out), it was tough,” Thompson said after a recent 90-minute workout as part of the Herd’s summer strength and conditioning program. “I’d say it took me about my whole prop year to get over it, being homesick.
“Other guys would be like, ‘Yeah, I’m going home,’ and they’d drive just a few hours away. Most of them talk about driving to Florida, like 13 hours. And I’m like, ‘I could hop on a plane for about six hours to go home.’ It was tough, but I worked it out.”
Now, the bullish Thompson is one of Marshall’s veteran leaders, with teammates like offensive linemen Clint Van Horn and Michael Selby. He’s one of only four returning starters on the Herd defense from 2015, and his bounce-back last season after dealing with a right knee ligament injury and subsequent surgery in the 2014 season and into spring ball in 2015.
Asked about those two picks of Carden in November 2013, Thompson smiled and admits it was more about physical ability than knowledge, a right-place, right-time situation.
His “pick-six” is the only MU interception for a score by a defensive lineman since the late Johnathan Goddard picked off a Ryan Hawk pass and ran it back 23 yards at Ohio’s Peden Stadium for the Herd’s lone touchdown in a 16-13 win in October 2004.
“Back then, I’d just run up the field after the quarterback,” he said. “I’m a lot smarter player now … I know what I’m supposed to do on certain plays instead of just busting plays and still making tackles. My first year I was out there running around and I didn’t have certain techniques.
“Now, I have my techniques down, so it’s not more like figuring out what I’m supposed to do on a play; it’s learning what am I supposed to do with my keys, and if it’s something different, how do I react to it – and then do that every time.”
It’s read-and-react, and it’s a bit about patience, which Thompson needed in a large dose after crossing the country and then only being a spectator during his first year on campus.
“When Doc told me I’d have to sit out a year, I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be a long year,’ but Coach (Mark) Gale (director of football operations) told me told me it should go by pretty fast,” Thompson said. “And the next thing, before I know it, here I am, a senior.
“Coming off my ‘prop’ year, I saw I had some good guys in front of me. I was just hoping to see a little bit of playing time and I managed to get enough to help me out … It’s all gone by really fast.”
Senior Alex Bazzie started at Fox in 2013. The next season, it was senior Arnold Blackmon who stepped into the job. Thompson was set back by his injury, and then a summer ago, he was one of those Marshall players challenged by the Herd staff to play “up to his measurables” – an oft-repeated phrase by Holliday and his aides.
Thompson heads toward his last collegiate August camp with 14 career sacks among his 21 tackles for loss. He owns nine pass breakups and 28 QB pressures to go with those two interceptions, and he’s proven to be as opportunistic and as much of an impact player when the ball is on the ground as he is when it’s airborne. He has six forced fumbles and four recovered fumbles.
“It’s important I be a leader; it’s a big key,” Thompson said. “I’m a senior, but I’m also a guy who has played a lot of ball here (36 games for teams that are a combined 33-8). We’ve been in close games, tough games, where we won or we lost, so coaches like to hear from a guy who has been through it all like they have, not just guys who really haven’t played that much … So, it kind of works out for me.
“What I expected when I came in is what we’ve done. Doc told me we were here to win championships and we’ve done that. The program has won what, five bowl games in a row (four in the last five seasons)? I expected it, and it’s happened.”
Thompson was voted to the C-USA All-Freshman Team in 2013, when – in addition to those two interceptions against ECU – he made 30 tackles with three sacks, seven QB hurries, four breakups and forced a fumble.
Three years later, Thompson said the number he cares about most is helping Marshall extend its Group of Five-leading run of three seasons of 10 or more victories.
“I’m not really a numbers guy,” he said. “My dad does it. He says things like, ‘You might want to get this or this (number) this year.’ I’m just interested in helping my team win. That’s what I care about. If I get the numbers to help us win, I’m happy about that. I’m out there to win it.
“Recognition (individually)? It matters a little bit, but like I said I’m just here to have a good time, play ball with my teammates. It’s my last year so I’m really going to go all out for my team and my teammates here, let the chips fall, and see what happens.
“The schedule, I’m very excited about it. We’ve got Louisville and Pitt, two great teams – one here (U of L) and one away, so… We’ve got seven home games (for the first time since 1996). It’s the best schedule we’ve had. It’s a nice schedule; I like it, especially in my last year here.”
Thompson is proud to be among the players who have helped Holliday bring Herd football back to success. Marshall is the first team in the 20-season history of Conference USA to reach three straight 10-win seasons – a group that includes programs with successful runs like Houston, Southern Miss, East Carolina, UCF, TCU, Tulsa, Louisville and Cincinnati.
The defensive end said the Herd has figured out the formula for success.
“This program can go further, can go as far as it wants,” Thompson said. “As long as the coaches, players, staff and academic people are all on the same page, it can go far. The sky is the limit. It just takes the players to buy in.
“Everybody has to be on the same page. We’ve figured that out. That’s how we’ve had success. It’s about players actually paying attention and listening and following directions, and the program can go wherever it wants to go.”
And in 2016, Thompson is intent on being one of those leaders to keep the Herd running together.
“The hardest thing about bring a leader is you might be cool with some guys,” the Californian said. “But you can’t be cool all the time because you have to yell at ‘em, chew them out a little bit to get them back on track.
“Sometimes it’s like, ‘Just because we’re friends …’ I’ve still got to tell you what to do and you’ve got to listen. That’s how it’s got to be.”