Iowa running back Albert Young finished last Saturday’s game against Michigan with 153 rushing yards. Putting together his big day, Young repeatedly ran by, around and through a long list of Wolverine defenders. But there was one man the redshirt sophomore had plenty of trouble with: Michigan linebacker John Thompson.
Before traveling to Iowa City, Thompson had never recorded more than three tackles in a game in his Michigan career. But during Iowa’s second possession in the third quarter on Saturday, the redshirt freshman – on a single drive – nearly doubled his career-high for stops in a game.
“John Thompson stepped in there. He made some big plays,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “He made some physical hits that put Iowa into some long-yardage situations, because when he made hits, he stopped the ball-carrier in his tracks.”
Thompson managed to take down Young four times with solo tackles. The Detroit native also assisted linebacker Prescott Burgess in stopping wide receiver Clinton Solomon after a 16-yard gain. All five tackles came in an eight-play span and, perhaps most impressive, three came behind the line of scrimmage, dropping Young for a combined negative-four yards. Thompson finished with eight tackles, including two critical stops in Michigan’s overtime defensive stand that held the Hawkeyes to a field goal.
“Big-time players make big-time plays when it’s crunch time like that, and that’s what he did,” rush linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “I’ve seen that from him before. He let everybody see it this time.”
Thompson, a regular participant on special teams who has normally entered the game only in spot duty on defense, got extended playing time at linebacker for the first time all season. With recently-struggling starter Chris Graham on the sideline for most of the game due in part to a knee injury, Thompson found himself playing alongside Burgess and linebacker David Harris for much of the afternoon. Typically a middle linebacker, Thompson was asked to play on the weak side and didn’t disappoint.
“It was shocking that he could just step in there and just do it,” Burgess said. “Most people, they get their chance to play and there’s like a second when they’re really not sure what to do. But he went in there and he went after the ball. That’s what I like about him.”
But Thompson’s hits weren’t the only way the linebacker made his presence felt on Saturday. His trash-talking, flexing, enthusiastic clapping and gesticulating were also extremely noticeable follow-ups to his tackles.
“He was just hyping, saying he’s ready to go,” Burgess said. “He just wanted everyone to join him. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I see you.’ – He got wild out there.”
Thompson has earned a few nicknames from his teammates. Rush linebacker Pierre Woods calls the Crockett High School graduate “Baby Ray Lewis,” in honor of the Baltimore Ravens’ hard-hitting, hyperactive linebacker. Senior defensive tackle Gabe Watson likens his younger teammate to Bobby Boucher, Adam Sandler’s superhuman linebacker character in the movie “The Waterboy.”
“He’s a player, isn’t he?” Watson said. “Just take a look at his forehead and he has bruises everywhere from hitting guys. – He’s not afraid to come up and fill the gap.”
Thompson recently started a tradition with some of his teammates. The Wolverines sit down and watch their respective high school highlight tapes to determine which player was the best before college.
“John loves to show his tapes,” safety Jamar Adams said. “The funny thing is, when you watch his high school tapes, he did the exact same thing he did on Saturday.”
Despite his frenetic celebrations on the field at Kinnick Stadium, Thompson displayed humility when discussing his late-game role in the Michigan victory.
“I was just stepping in for an injured player, trying to do my best for the team,” Thompson said. “We’re an overtime football team. When it’s overtime, we have to step up and make big plays. I made a big play.”