Football

Thompson emerges as contributor on Syracuse defensive line after injury, position change

Ziniu Chen | Staff Photographer

Defensive end Ron Thompson recorded his first career sack against then-No. 19 Northwestern. He came to Syracuse as a tight end, but converted to defense after having surgery.

Ron Thompson thought it was just a groin strain.

It was just a week before the start of his freshman season and the four-star tight end had a chance to be an immediate factor, but the injury relegated him to the sidelines.

The next step was to get an MRI and figure out when he could get back on the field. The doctors took the scan and compared the two sides of his waist.

“Whoa. We see something in your right hip,” Thompson remembered the doctors telling him. “Has it been bothering you at all?”

Thompson had a blood flow problem in his hip. It would require surgery and end his season. Had it been caught later, it could have endangered his career.

“It was kind of shocking because I had never had a problem with it hurting or anything,” Thompson said. “It was just something they caught really fast and actually saved me.”

A year after the surgery, Thompson is no longer saddled with the cumbersome expectations of being an untainted four-star recruit. He isn’t even a tight end anymore. Now he’s a talented, yet still untested, defensive end for Syracuse. And with an injury to starter Robert Welsh, his role could be expanding.

After the diagnosis, Thompson said he could have never imagined himself in that position. Thompson was coveted by both the Orange’s offensive and defensive staffs, but Doug Marrone, then SU’s head coach, was an offensive-minded leader, unwilling to give up a potential star on that side of the ball.

But even more alarming for Thompson was the lingering prospect that he would perhaps never play football again.

“I’m not going to bullcrap you, I was kind of depressed,” Thompson said, “because there was a chance for me not being able to play football and I haven’t even got a chance to play in a game or anything.”

The surgery was successful and he missed just one season. His start to 2013 was never in jeopardy, but he had to sit out the spring.

Instead, he spent that season in meeting rooms with tight ends until just three days before the end of camp.

Scott Shafer is in charge now. A year earlier, the defensive coordinator-turned-head coach clamored for Thompson to play on his side of the ball, but Marrone had the last say.

“I had it in my mind as soon as he kind of switched, I was just like, ‘Yeah, I really see it coming now,’” Thompson said. “I started visualizing myself playing defensive end. I pretty much knew it was going to happen.”

For the final three days of spring camp, Thompson went to meetings with the defensive line.

“Those are the types of recruits you want,” Shafer said. “You want the recruit that the offense wants him, the defense wants him and they want him on special teams, and that’s Ron Thompson.”

Thompson said the surgery wasn’t the reason for the position change, but he admitted he couldn’t imagine how things would’ve been different had he never gotten injured. He was a star at both positions for Southfield High School in Michigan, but was the No. 13 tight end in the country.

He never had a preference for the position, but he now brings a unique perspective and skill set to SU’s defensive line. His athleticism is what really stands out to defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough.

The already athletic Thompson is even faster now than he was as a tight end, which is a testament to the work of Will Hicks, SU’s assistant athletics director for athletic performance, during Thompson’s rehab.

Thompson’s still “trying to learn how to be a D-end,” Bullough said, but he’s racked up nine tackles, including two for a loss.

“He has brain farts at times,” said linebacker Marquis Spruill. “I wouldn’t have expected Ron to do as well as he does on defense, him being a tight end and coming into a whole different setting.”

Thompson’s improved in the weight room — he can bench 225 pounds 20-25 times now, up from just 11 when he arrived at Syracuse — and as an athlete while he learns his new position.

From time to time, he still gets a chance to hearken back to his offensive days. In practice last week, he dropped back into coverage and made a remarkable interception.

“Oh, that’s his old tight end days,” Bullough said.

The highlight so far, though, came when Syracuse was routed by then-No. 19 Northwestern on Sept. 7 in Evanston, Ill.

It was just Thompson’s second game as a defensive end and he was faced with one of the nation’s premier offensive juggernauts.

The new defensive end charged into the backfield and dragged down Kain Colter for his first collegiate sack.

“It was like I was on the field,” Thompson recalled, “but I was really in my mind thinking like, ‘Wow, I just got a sack. Who would’ve thought?’”

His dream was almost denied. But a year later, he’s finally living it.

“I’m doing my dream,” he said, “playing college football.”

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