Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson had to juggle different positions in college at Washington, and since coming to the NFL, he has had to juggle his new job with schoolwork.
Thompson had originally planned to join the Panthers on Thursday after finishing his third year at the University of Washington, but he finagled with his professors to take an exam early and got back to Charlotte in time for two organized team activity practices.
Thompson, Carolina’s first-round pick in this year’s draft, hasn’t logged much time with the team because of a hamstring injury and Washington’s academic calendar, which is on the quarter system. He has been limited to a lot of mental reps and studying the playbook from afar as he learns to become a professional football player.
“It was difficult because there were times I wanted to put the playbook first, but I couldn’t,” Thompson said Thursday after the final OTA practice of the week. “I had to get the essays out of the way and study for finals and put as much studying in the playbook as I can.”
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Thompson split his time in his books and on his tablet. When he wasn’t studying for his music course or writing an essay comparing police brutality from years ago to today for his African-American studies course, he was in contact with Carolina linebackers coach Al Holcomb with questions about the playbook.
The rookie stressed he “had to put school first” but admitted he wanted to be on the field in Charlotte with his teammates.
“It’s not really frustrating because I had school. School comes first. I had to get that done,” Thompson said. “I really wanted to be out here, but at least I got two days in to mentally prepare and get reps.”
Thompson came to Carolina when the Panthers drafted him with the 25th overall pick in April’s draft. He played safety and linebacker for the Huskies (as well as some running back), but Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera made it clear they wanted him as an outside linebacker.
A finesse player who relies on athleticism more than overpowering a blocker, Thompson will line up opposite Thomas Davis.
Leading up to rookie camp in May, he worked alongside second-year cornerback Bené Benwikere to digest the playbook.
While the Panthers are a 4-3 defense, they played the majority of the 2014 season – like most NFL teams – in their nickel defense, which takes a linebacker off the field and adds a defensive back.
Thompson’s addition would seem to signal the Panthers reverting to the more traditional 4-3 defense, which would mean less time on the field for the nickel, Benwikere. But Benwikere said this week that he believes there “will be enough plays to go around” for the two of them.
Thompson strained his hamstring midway through the first practice at rookie minicamp and sat out the second day. He rehabbed it on his own time at Washington, and less than a month later he was back on the field for the Panthers this week at OTAs.
He worked in a limited role with the second-team defense in the two practices as A.J. Klein took the first-team reps with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker.
Thompson said he believes he improved in the two practices, but assistant head coach Steve Wilks said Thompson still has a long way to go.
“I thought he played well,” said Wilks, who coached practice Thursday in place of Rivera, who was at his daughter’s college graduation. “It’s going to take some time for him to catch up with the other guys, but he’s a smart guy. Coach Holcomb is working with him extra in the afternoons as well as in the morning, so he’s going to pick it up. You see his athleticism is outstanding, and his movement. He’s going to make a lot of plays for us this year.”
Thompson expects to practice all three days at next week’s veteran minicamp, where he’ll get more valuable time on the field rather than just reading about it.
“You can look at a playbook for as many hours as you want, but you won’t truly know it until you come out here and do it,” Thompson said. “It’s all about having that repetition.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9