Logan • During a game against BYU earlier this season, Utah State offensive lineman Rob Castaneda crouched in his block position. Junior running back Darwin Thompson waited nearby, itching for an opportunity to pick up serious yardage.

Once the ball was snapped, Castaneda made his block and Thompson received the handoff. Thompson, who was directly behind Castaneda, rocketed through the gap the lineman created and looked home free. But a Cougars safety appeared as if out of nowhere looking to make the tackle.

No problem for Thompson. In one motion, the junior running back from Oklahoma hurdled over the defender and cleared him easily.

“It was probably the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in person,” Castaneda said after Tuesday’s practice in preparation for the New Mexico Bowl. “Seeing him do that, it was just like man, this dude really is a freak out there.”

Thompson’s athleticism is just one of the tools he has used to become Utah State’s top rusher in 2018. He’s amassed 951 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, and averages 79.3 yards per game.

To watch Thompson run the football is to see a rare combination of speed, finesse and power. He makes a habit of breaking arm tackles, shifting just enough to send tacklers flying past him, and, of course, jumping over the occasional human being. His explosiveness turn typical run plays into extra-yard gains.

NEW MEXICO BOWL
UTAH STATE VS. NORTH TEXAS


When • Saturday, Noon
TV • ESPN

But Thompson didn’t start the season as well as he’s finishing it. When he transferred to Utah State from Northeast Oklahoma A&M College, he wanted to prove that not only was he capable of performing at the Division I level, but he could dominate within it. He wanted to dispel the stereotype that players from junior colleges are, in some way, damaged goods.

His road to proving that was shaky at first. Thompson routinely followed the guards on run plays in the spring, a habit he had to unlearn due to USU’s offensive philosophies, offensive coordinator David Yost said. Then he sprained his ankle — the same one he’s been spraining since high school — and was out for a week.

Thompson might spend as much of his life in the weight room as he does on the football field. So when he got hurt at the beginning of the season, it was an eye-opening experience, he said.

“Before I came in I had this confidence that I was above everybody in the way my game was,” Thompson said. “Once I sprained my ankle, it humbled me almost. Like just set me back and [I] realized, ‘You could still get hurt. You’re not Superman.’”

Thompson’s prowess with weights is stuff of legend. In June, he was named one of college football’s 18 “most freakish” athletes. He said he can front squat 500 pounds, and went as high as 650 pounds in his senior year of high school.

The way Thompson attacks the weights is all sophomore quarterback Jordan Love needed to see to be convinced that the Aggies had a star in the making on their roster.

“I knew right then and there he’s going to be good just from seeing that,” Love said.

Yost said once the summer started, however, Thompson looked like "a different guy.”

It didn’t take long for junior running back Gerald Bright to see the same potential. As soon as he saw Thompson put on pads, Bright said, he noticed Thompson had a “nose for the end zone.”

“When he first got here, he made his mark,” Bright said. “He’s a powerful runner. He’s ridiculous. He’s like an energizer bunny.”

Bright hosted Thompson when he came to Utah State for his official visit. Since then, the two juniors have been practically inseparable, and challenge each other on and off the field.

“I just keep it real with him [and] he keep it real with me,” Bright said. “We see each other slacking, we’re going to let each other know and we’re going to commend each other for doing good.”

Castaneda calls Thomson and Bright “Thunder and Lightning,” and both players agree Thompson is the thunder part of that pairing due to his versatility and physicality. Bright’s speed gives him the other moniker.

“I’m a speed guy,” Bright said. “If nobody contests me, I’d rather it be that way. Darwin, I think he likes contact. He likes to hurt people.”

Most players on the team think the sky is the limit for Thompson. Love said he has no doubt in his mind that Thompson will be in the NFL someday soon.

Castaneda has enjoyed this season working with Thompson, especially the times he shows off just how athletic he is.

“He’s a beast on the field,” Castaneda said. “He’s a guy that I would definitely want to block for, if I could, for the rest of my life.”