Utah State’s Deven Thompkins almost left Logan. Instead, he’s on the verge of Aggie greatness.

The nation’s leading receiver is a matchup nightmares for cornerbacks

Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) catches a pass as Hawaii defensive back Quentin Frazier (19) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

As he drops back, Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner scans the field. His eyes appear to focus on the tight end running a post over the middle.

Except it’s a feint. Bonner is trying to draw one of the safeties toward that area of the field. What he really wants is a one-on-one matchup on the outside that would make plenty of other coaches worried: Bonner wants the 6-foot New Mexico State cornerback, D.J. McCullough, matched up against the 5-foot-8 Deven Thompkins.

With one defensive back safely out of position, Bonner looks away from the tight end, turns to his right and uncorks his best deep ball. Fifty yards downfield, the receiver rises with the grace of an Olympic high-jumper and snags the ball eight feet in the air, over the outstretched arms of the much taller corner for a 51-yard gain.

Teammates and coaches sprint up the sidelines toward the wideout. Others raise their hands in disbelief at what they just saw. Head coach Blake Anderson gives Thompkins a high-five. And USU’s passing game coordinator Kyle Cefalo, who is supposed to be prepping for the next play, stops for a moment and thinks to himself: “That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in person.”

That’s Thompkins, the undersized wideout with the outsized talent who leads the country in receiving. As the Aggies wrap up Mountain West play Friday against New Mexico, Thompkins has piled up 1,508 receiving yards alongside nine touchdown receptions.

And after nearly leaving USU last year, Thompkins is a mere 23 yards away from breaking Kevin Curtis’ 20-year-old school record in Logan.

Anyone who has watched Thompkins play, knows that record is just one jump ball away.

“When that ball’s in the air it’s between him and himself between who’s going to get that football,” Cefalo said. “It’s almost like there’s nobody else out there. He’s going to fight for it. He’s going to get that ball.”

How Deven Thompkins got to Utah State

When Thompkins arrived at Utah State, no one expected the undersized receiver to become one of the program’s all-time greats at the position. But it’s easier to understand Thompkins’ rise when seeing how pursuing greatness underpins every decision he has made going back to high school: Football is Plan A, the one road to success in his mind, and nothing is getting in his way.

“Football is my passion,” Thompkins said. “It’s what I’ve cashed in all my chips on. I’m not a schoolboy too much.”

This mentality led Thompkins to change high schools three times in four years. The switches didn’t come from his family moving or for academic purposes, he wanted the best fit on and off the field so he could perform and thus get the best collegiate scholarship offers.

Except that no good offers materialized for Thompkins.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Aggies wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) celebrates his touchdown as the Utah State Aggies host Brigham Young University Cougars at Maverik Stadium Oct. 1, 2021. The Cougars attempt a second straight win for the Wagon Wheel, the trophy of the in-state rivalry, while the Aggies will try to recapture the trophy.

Near the start of the high school playoffs in Thompkins’ senior season of high school, he had two non-FBS offers — Valdosta State and Duquesne University. Four years of varsity football, bouncing between schools to play the best competition, and he’d caught the eye of only a single FCS program and a single Division II school.

“I was starting to get a little discouraged,” Thompkins said. “But something my mom always told me was ‘just have faith, you’ll be OK.’”

As is often the case with mothers, she turned out to be right when Utah State, a school Thompkins never heard of, reached out and made him an offer.

With what seemed like a one-in-a-million opportunity, Thompkins felt he had no room for error, but embraced the challenge.

“I told myself once I got it I was like, ‘I’m going to make the most out of this. I’m probably not going to get any more offers.’ I kind of knew that,” he said. “I mentally prepared myself for it.”

Thompkins gradually worked his way up the ranks at Utah State. He played as a true freshman, an impressive feat at a redshirt school like USU, but saw infrequent time and targets. As a sophomore, he caught 40 passes for 536 yards, both marks being third on the team.

All of that work across two seasons built toward setting up a breakout 2020 season. But a disastrous start to the year by the Aggies snuffed out all of that progress in the span of four weeks. Head coach Gary Andersen was fired after three weeks and following the fourth, quarterback Jason Shelly was dismissed by interim coach Frank Maile. Thompkins’ world had fallen apart. So, after USU’s fourth straight loss to start the season, he left the team and put his name in the transfer portal.

“Utah State just might not be the school that’s gonna give me that exposure that I need or put me in that offense that I need to be in in order to display my talent,” Thompkins thought.

Bigger schools come calling

If the situation wasn’t right, Thompkins was prepared to move on, as he had done multiple times in high school. He self-imposed a deadline to choose a new school. He wanted to decide by January 2021 so he could enroll wherever he went.

All of Thompkins’ family — save for two — were in favor of him leaving Utah State. The two exceptions were Thompkins’ father and stepfather.

“Everybody else was like ‘Yeah, it’s good for you to transfer. You need to go to a bigger school.’ Things of that nature,” Thompkins said. “My stepdad and my dad were like ‘No, you need to go back. That’s you. That’s your school right there. You made your name there. Just trust it. Just trust that they’re gonna bring somebody in there that will make all this right.’”

While sitting on the back porch of his mom’s house in Florida, Thompkins got a call from the new Utah State head coach, Blake Anderson. He’d been getting a lot of these calls from Logan. Anderson, Cefalo and offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker tag-teamed phoning up the now-former Aggie. They joined their voices with that of Thompkins’ dad and stepdad. The pitch: Come back to Utah State and you’ll be the centerpiece of a brand-new team.

Pitted against a possible return to USU were Thompkins’ talks with two Power Five schools: Louisville and Kentucky. Both teams had reached out to him about going to one of those schools in the Bluegrass State.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) celebrates after scoring against BYU in the second half during an NCAA college football game Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, in Logan, Utah.

As always, Thompkins weighed his decision on the scales of off-the-field and on-the-field fit, the combination that would clear the runway for him to advance his career. Despite the turmoil that was the 2020 Utah State team, playing under Anderson was clearly the best fit in Thompkins’ mind.

“I just saw the way that they wanted to play and how Coach Anderson came at it,” Thompkins said. “How different both of the staffs were. At Louisville, it just seemed like it was just business. It wasn’t more of a family-oriented thing. It was just more so business whereas Coach Anderson, he cared about my well-being and my children’s well-being.”

As for on the field, Kentucky wanted Thompkins to be the “eye candy” of the team, a versatile player but also only a contributor. Thompkins didn’t miss the fact that the Wildcats were grooming a different player to be the star of the passing game. As for Louisville, they simply took too long to commit anything to Thompkins.

With the two biggest factors of Thompkins’ decision-making pointed toward Logan, there was no other choice to be made. He needed to return to Utah State and work to become the best receiver in school history.

Becoming an Aggie great

Utah State’s coaches got what they wanted with Thompkins coming back but what they received didn’t fit the 5-foot-8 package they thought was coming to Logan. Rather than a simple short speedster, Thompkins was an all-around athlete. As early as winter workouts, the almost freaky level of athleticism put smiles on the faces of staff members.

“I remember,” Anderson said, “my strength coach, Paul Jackson, he looked at me, big smile and said ‘I understand why you worked with that one.’”

“It hit us really early in spring ball,” Tucker said. “Like ‘holy, oh my, this guy’s got a chance to be really, really good.’ ”

Being fast and athletic weren’t completely unique traits on their own. What really changed things in the minds of coaches was Thompkins’ preternatural ability to go after the ball in the air.

“The biggest surprise to me when we went out to spring ball were his ball skills,” Tucker said. “You don’t see ball skills in that package like he has. He has elite, elite, elite ball skills.”

This element of Thompkins’ game is what changes him from a mid-tier receiver into an elite one. He has 16 catches of 30 or more yards this season, many of those patterned after the 51-yard catch at New Mexico State. These 16 catches account for 716 yards, bordering on half his receiving production.

How Thompkins learned those ball skills goes back to his early days playing pickup basketball as a youngster and playing defensive back in high school. It also helps that Thompkins possesses an uncanny vertical leaping ability. But just as much as development and pure talent factor in, the fact is Thompkins simply plays bigger than he is.

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) catches a pass for a 41-yard touchdown as Wyoming linebacker Keyon Blankenbaker (18) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Logan, Utah.

“There’s a fearlessness about DT and it’s very uncommon, especially in the package that he has,” Tucker said. “He doesn’t see the same person in the mirror that everybody else sees and that’s how he plays.”

The coaching staff had to rework all of their plans for Thompkins upon seeing this unexpected skill. Now even the quarterback Bonner has grown used to the idea of a short receiver being his favorite downfield target.

“If you would have told me before the year started before I got here ‘Would you take a one-on-one matchup deep ball on a 5-7 guy?’ I would be like, ‘Well, depends on the guy,’ ” Bonner said. “Obviously, you can tell, he’s an elite player with elite ball skills. So I’ll take him any time no matter how big the corner is.”

Thompkins’ talent is also built on a foundation of a tireless work ethic. This trait, too, is something the coaches caught saw early. Tucker said when he’s gone into a new situation “a lot of guys are on their best behavior. And then all of the sudden you start seeing chinks in the armor with certain people.” Thompkins? “He’s been the most consistent person all the way through,” Tucker said.

There’s very little holding him back, except his height. Thompkins understands perfectly well how short he is, but it’s never bothered him or felt like an obstacle to his ultimate goals.

“I know God gifted me with some really great abilities, athleticism and things like that,” Thompkins said. “He couldn’t give me the height as well. I had to have a deficiency somewhere. That’s kind of how I look at it.”

Despite a slight stature, despite not being heavily recruited, and despite one of the worst years of his life on and off the field, Thompkins is on the path to greatness. It’s the path he’s chased for a decade and finally found at Utah State. That road doesn’t end in Logan but before his time is over Thompkins is set to leave a not-so-small mark on the school’s history.