Tyler Huntley was in the midst of mobilizing an upset against the defending state champions.
On the other side of the ball, Huntley saw an undersized, rangy, ball-hawk middle linebacker, who he had to make a mental note of on every down. It was in that game three years ago that Huntley’s hopes for a state title were dashed in the Florida Class 6A regional semifinal as reigning champs Miami Central downed Hallandale 35-19.
Huntley took notice of his future teammate at Utah, linebacker Donavan Thompson.
“I saw that he was a great player,” Huntley said. “Down in that area, you get the feel of who all the good guys are, who’s going to do something great at the next level.”
Thompson, it just so happens, is coming off what Utah coach Kyle Whittingham described Monday as his best game since arriving at Utah. The sophomore linebacker earned his first career start on a defense thinned extensively due to injuries. The 21-year-old had a career-high night in the 33-25 loss to No. 15 Washington State finishing with a team-high 12 tackles as he replaced start Sunia Tauteoli, out with an injury.
“I thought Donavan with his first start, with really his first extensive playing time as Ute performed very well,” Whittingham said.
While somewhat undersized at 5-foot-10, Thompson’s all-around abilities on the field have shown when given the opportunity this year. Freshman defensive back Jaylon Johnson said Thompson “just plugs holes” on the defensive side of the ball.
“Main thing this year is I understand the reps I get is very precious,” Thompson said, “so when I get out there, I’ve just got to make the most of it.”
Thompson said he finally felt settled in at Utah the conclusion of preseason camp. As a freshman in 2016, he played in eight games, primarily on special teams. He finished the season with 12 total tackles.
“I just needed the reps and needed to know I’d be able to play at this level,” he said. “And when I got the chance, I just made plays.”
Recruited to Utah by former assistant coach Dennis Erickson, Thompson said he was initially attracted to the idea of joining the Utes out of high school because of the physical brand of defense synonymous with the program. With injuries mounting, the playmaker from Miami, Fla., will likely have many more chances to be showcased.
“He’ll go get ’em,” Huntley said.
Injuries all over
How many starters will be out this weekend at No. 16 Washington?
It’ll go right down to the wire on at least six players, Whittingham estimated.
Utah was already without Tauteoli, leading wide receiver Darren Carrington II, safety Chase Hansen, guard Jordan Agasiva and safety Marquise Blair, who suffered a season-ending injury against UCLA. But the loss against Washington State proved costly. Defensive end Kylie Fitts left the game in the first half and didn’t return.
Starting defensive backs Casey Hughes and Julian Blackmon also left injured. Blackmon returned briefly.
“It doesn’t appear at this time that there are any season-ending injuries,” Whittingham said. “We’ll always hope for the best.”
More late kicks
Two days after it was announced that Utah’s final road game of 2017 would kick off at Washington at 8:30 p.m. Mountain time, Utah’s regular-season finale had its time slot penciled in, too. Utah’s regular-season finale at home against Colorado is scheduled to kick off at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25 on FS1.
“Thrilled about that. Thrilled to get back to the late schedule,” Whittingham quipped. “It was a nice break for a couple weeks. We’ve got two later kickoffs. As I’ve said, never complain about refs, never complain about kickoff times. Just go with the flow.”