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McFarling: Tony Elliott helping Keytaon Thompson take his game to another level

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Roanoke Times Wide receiver Keytaon Thompson led Virginia with 78 catches for 990 yards last season. UVa coach Tony Elliott called Thompson a “great” player but is pushing him to refine the technical aspects of his game.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The boy was holding back.

Virginia wide receiver Keytaon Thompson understood why. When you ask your little brother to teach you the one activity he understands better than you — in this case, chess — you can expect him to be a bit parsimonious with the secrets.

“I know he didn’t teach me everything about the game,” Thompson said with a smile, thinking back to the chess lessons he got in high school from Kayden, a competitive player who is six years his junior. “He just taught me how the pieces moved. Then he proceeded to whup up on me.”

Fitting that Keytaon Thompson remains a recreational chess player. He’s made a lot of moves as a college football player — schools, positions, offenses — and is one of the most powerful pieces the Cavaliers have on the board for this fall.

Thompson is a thinker, a planner, a guy who reflects. A decorated student, he’s armed with a master’s degree in higher education as he enters his sixth year of college football. Teammates call him “Old Man” (and if you want to feel old yourself, consider that he’s still just 23).

Everything he does is considered, just as a chess gambit would be.

“Once you make that move, it’s pretty much over with,” Thompson said. “You want to make that move your best move and try to stay a few steps ahead.”

A former quarterback who earned his undergrad degree from Mississippi State, Thompson has gone all-in on becoming the best receiver he can be. New UVa coach Tony Elliott has made that easier. An ex-wideout himself, Elliott has been relentless in his critiques of the 6-foot-4, 217-pound New Orleans native.

“The biggest area I’ve seen him grow is just accepting the challenge to become a technician at the position,” Elliott said. “I already know you are a great football player. You have a great football mind. He started as a quarterback. He just has that sense. He has that knack. Now can we add the technical aspect of it to complete your game?

“He has everything he needs to be dominant and successful at this level, but I desire for him to accomplish his goals beyond the University of Virginia, and I don’t just want him to get to the NFL. I want him to stay in the NFL. He needs to just continue to improve the small technical aspects, because he has all the big things.”

Thompson admits he was a bit perplexed when every rep in practice was met with criticism. He led UVa receivers with 78 catches in 2021 while finishing just 10 yards shy of becoming the sixth player in school history to post a 1,000-yard receiving season.

But the finer points — route-running, sinking the hips just before the break, blocking — all get called out when he doesn’t do them.

“At first, I was kind of confused, like, ‘What does this guy want from me? Is he serious?’” Thompson said of Elliott. “But I eventually was able to catch onto it, change my perspective and really benefit.”

Thompson’s rare size and catch radius create mismatches against every team UVa will play this fall. But there’s also his intelligence, forged through experience and a career filled with adaptation.

This season, Thompson is absorbing his fifth different offense as a collegian. Elliott is the fourth head coach for whom he’s played.

Tough? Maybe for some. But don’t forget, Thompson is a quick learner.

After his little brother destroyed him in those early chess games, Thompson went to work.

“I had to go and do my own research and figure out how to actually play,” Thompson said. “Then probably after about a month of doing research, reading books and playing other people, I finally beat him.”

He smiled.

“I took a break from playing him after that,” he said.

Always one step ahead.

Aaron McFarling reports for The Roanoke Times.


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