Redshirt junior John Thompson’s stoic face broke into a slight smile as he recounted the best hit he has delivered during his three years at Michigan.
The middle linebacker collided facemask-to-facemask with Iowa running back Albert Young two years ago in Iowa City, and the hit has stuck with him to this day.
“All my life, that’s what I bank on: being a hard hitter,” Thompson said. “It’s just adrenaline. It feels good to punish somebody.”
That day, Thompson showed exactly how much punishment he could inflict in a game. After starter Chris Graham left with an injury, Thompson racked up eight tackles in relief of his teammate, including three for a loss.
But the expectations of increased playing time faded as Thompson sat behind All-American David Harris the past two seasons.
Even though Thompson patiently waited for his chance on the sideline, he demonstrated how hard he could hit in practice. Junior defensive tackle Terrance Taylor calls Thompson “maybe the best hitter” on the team.
“When I first got here as a freshman at practice and you heard some pads cracking, you knew it was (Thompson),” Taylor said.
Taylor remembered one practice last season when then-freshman running back Brandon Minor met Thompson.
The team was running a goal line drill, and Thompson kept laying into Minor. He hit the running back so hard Minor’s neck started bleeding because his helmet slid down from the impact of Thompson’s blows.
Thompson may have turned heads with his tenacious tackles, but his opportunity to showcase his ability on the field didn’t come until this past spring, when Harris’s graduation left the middle linebacker spot up for grabs.
“Patience is hard to have, but I respected Dave Harris,” Thompson said. “He waited his turn here. He had people he sat behind. A lot of people that have been here before sat behind people and waited their turn. When they got their chance, they proved what they needed to do.”
But the Michigan coaching staff wasn’t about to hand the starting spot to Thompson without some competition. The Wolverines brought in junior college transfer Austin Panter and had redshirt freshman Obi Ezeh, a running back in high school, ready to battle Thompson for the job.
Thompson, nicknamed “The Machete” by fellow backer Shawn Crable for the way he cuts down opponents, didn’t flinch. In his mind, it was his spot for the taking.
“I’m here to prove what I need to do,” Thompson said.
But the first two games this season didn’t go as Thompson planned. The Wolverines were winless, and the defense had given up more than 30 points in each contest.
It got so bad that Thompson’s dad, Martin Thompson, who played cornerback at Central State in Ohio, talked to his son about holding his head up and continuing to fight.
And Thompson and the defense did just that last Saturday. The unit held Notre Dame under 100 yards without surrendering a score.
In the middle of the defense’s resurgence stood Thompson, who Taylor said has become more vocal with his reads and calls on the field.
“I just saw him attack the football better than he has, and John is a very physical player,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “He’s a tough guy, and I think he did a better job with the defense than he has in those first two weeks.”
Thompson had six tackles and took some bragging rights home to his dad with an interception in the second quarter.
“I couldn’t believe it was coming to me,” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘Dang, the ball’s really coming. Let me just get this in. I don’t care about nothing else.’ “
With the interception and the win, Thompson’s smile might become permanent – as long as The Machete has someone to hit.