Keytaon Thompson’s propensity for executing the better-than-routine catch or run would indicate he has filled his unique role for years.
Just this past Saturday at Heinz Field, the Virginia football player — as the Cavaliers list him on their roster — was outstretched and leaping to corral a reception with two hands near the sideline for a first down in the first quarter. He added a grab with four defenders around him on the same, opening drive for a gain of 23 yards after lining up as a wing back and streaking down the seam.
Cavaliers quarterback Brennan Armstrong snuck a throw through those trying Pittsburgh defensive backs, but Thompson was the one who came away with it. That set up Thompson’s receiving score, and then in the third quarter, the do-it-all athlete took a handoff from the running back spot and stiff-armed a Panthers linebacker to the ground en route to the end zone again.
“It’s honestly insane,” Armstrong said about Thompson. “It’s crazy. He’s so dynamic on the field. He does so much for us. He’s gotten better and better every week.”
Said Thompson: “I think I’m doing well and I’m just trying to keep it going.”
Maybe that’s why the decision Thompson faces about going pro isn’t such a no-brainer.
Thompson, who played quarterback his entire football career up until last year, is only in the early stages of figuring out exactly how to do everything he’s done for UVa this fall even though he’s done it well. And the 6-4, 210-pound senior said he’s unsure about whether he’ll declare for the NFL Draft at the conclusion of this season or return to Charlottesville for his sixth year in college football to continue his development.
“Time will tell,” Thompson said. “I guess there’s always that part of you that wants to come back. And depending on how things shake out this next game against Virginia Tech, I’ll make a decision in the near offseason and in the near future.”
The opportunity for an extra year of eligibility stems from the NCAA affording all athletes an additional season to play out because of the 2020 coronavirus-impacted campaign.
So as UVa sends its seniors off in a ceremony before its 3:45 p.m. kickoff on Saturday against the rival Hokies, it’s possible Thompson, who has achieved so much for himself and the Cavaliers since transferring to UVa from Mississippi State ahead of last season, ultimately returns for more.
If he opts for the chance to play on Sundays, though, Thompson will have earned that future through selflessness and making the most of his unexpected path toward prosperity. Thompson’s 899 receiving yards are seventh most in the Atlantic Coast Conference this fall. He also has 244 rushing yards and four scores on the ground.
“When I made the decision to come to UVa,” Thompson said, “I was very optimistic, coming as a quarterback and planning to be a quarterback. I was thinking I’d find success. I just wasn’t thinking it’d be this way and in this fashion. And, man, I can tell you I’m having fun.”
Thompson, a native of New Orleans, needed another Louisianan to help land at UVa.
“I wanted to recruit [Thompson] once but I wasn’t able to get him because I was at another place,” Cavaliers special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach Ricky Brumfield said with a grin.
Brumfield was working at Western Kentucky when Thompson, who was rated a four-star prospect by Rivals and the 85th best player nationally in the recruiting class of 2017, decided on Mississippi State. At Landry-Walker High, Thompson was the Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year in 2016 and starred while racking up 10,737 yards of total offense throughout his prep career.
Thompson joined the Bulldogs and his future with the program was bright.
He played regularly as a freshman for former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and then Thompson made his first career start that year in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Thompson outdueled former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson while throwing for 127 yards, running for 147 yards and tallying three rushing touchdowns in Mississippi State’s 31-27 victory over Louisville.
But Mullen had already departed prior to bowl season, taking the same job at Florida. Mississippi State replaced Mullen with Joe Moorhead, but he lasted only two years before his firing and the Bulldogs’ hiring of Mike Leach.
And at that point, on the heels of so much coaching turnover, Thompson was ready for a change, too.
“New Orleans is not a big place,” Brumfield said, “and we’re all kind of from around the same area, so if you don’t know that one person specifically, you know someone that knows him really well. And so just knowing what [Thompson] did, and I knew his high school coaches and I grew up with some of his coaches, so as soon as he hit the portal, those were the first ones I called.”
Brumfield was in pursuit of Thompson again, and had a better shot of securing a commitment from Thompson this time around. He had other suitors, too. Mullen circled back around with the Gators and, on top of Florida and UVa, UCLA and Cal reached out as well.
But Thompson said ultimately his connection with Brumfield was a separator, so he chose the Hoos.
“That played a big part of it,” Thompson said, “especially with it being during COVID and not being able to go out and meet people and take official visits and things like that. I already had a prior relationship with Coach Brum and when I talked to the coaches at UVa, I felt at home with ‘em and like it was a family atmosphere. And that helped a lot.”
He also knew he’d have the opportunity to compete for the top quarterback job with Armstrong.
Overcoming the shoulder setback
In August of last year, Thompson dueled with Armstrong for UVa’s starting quarterback gig.
The Cavaliers needed one of the two to emerge to fill the void left behind by former signal-caller Bryce Perkins, a two-time Dudley Award winner and a second-team All-ACC choice in 2019.
“The competition was going great,” Thompson said. “It was really competitive and then I partially tore my labrum in my shoulder and that kind of knocked me out of the competition.”
At the time, Thompson didn’t know his labrum was torn, he only knew he felt pain, he said. He didn’t find out until later last fall that he had suffered such a serious injury.
Either way, a quarterback with a painful shoulder isn’t ideal for the player or the team, so Thompson was at a crossroads.
“I was standing around at practice the next couple of days,” Thompson recalled about bowing out of the quarterback battle with Armstrong. “I was bored and I just wanted to get back out there and that’s kind of how everything came to pass.”
Thompson said UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall initially joked with him during one of those practices about Thompson possibly trying other positions, and then after Thompson thought it over, he approached Mendenhall about actually doing it.
“But when I was going to ask him about it,” Thompson said, “he was probably on his way to ask me about it and it was a mutual thing.”
So, Thompson’s training at other spots on the field began. He said he leaned on UVa wide receivers coach Marques Hagans as well as wide receivers Billy Kemp IV and Dontayvion Wicks to learn the fundamentals of catching passes and running routes.
He consulted Brumfield, a former receiver in his playing days at Utah State, and Mendenhall along the way about all the various tasks they’ve asked of him as well.
“He can do whatever you need him to do,” noted Brumfield, who said he thinks Thompson has certainly improved his chances for a pro future.
“I’ll put him on punt. I’ll put him on punt return,” Brumfield said. “He can probably cover on kickoff, and honestly, I’d use him a lot more if he wasn’t as valuable to the offense as he is. But he can be on all four phases of special teams, so for him at the next level, he can play wherever someone needs him to play. You need him to take a reverse and throw the ball or you need him to run the ball or you need him to catch the ball or you need him to block somebody or block a punt, I’ve never been around somebody who can do everything the way he can. He’s that Swiss Army Knife. Whatever you need, he can do it.”
Ryan Roberts, a scout for the College Gridiron Showcase — a postseason All-Star event for prospects — and an NFL Draft analyst for RiseNDraft.com, said he believes Thompson is a draftable prospect now and that NFL decision-makers will appreciate Thompson’s willingness to do anything.
“There’s a really high floor to a player like him,” Roberts said, “because you can see the gadget stuff he can do. He can play wildcat quarterback. He can take some jets. He can take end arounds. He can even throw the football on some trick plays. He can work out of the slot, at wing and so there are a lot of different things that he can do stylistically on the offensive side of the football.
“And the other aspect to it is that the NFL is always going to look for guys that have that length, height and athleticism because he’s going to be a guy that has to contribute on special teams early. And his profile says he can do that.”
Thompson said it was another matchup against Louisville — the 34-33 win for the Cavaliers last month — when he felt he had a knack and a true understanding of the football-player assignment he’s revolutionized for UVa.
He played that game with a cast on his hand, too, after breaking it in a game a few weeks before against North Carolina.
“I had a couple of big catches on fourth down and another catch to get us down to the 1-yard line on the game-winning drive,” Thompson said. “I think from that point on, that I thought I can probably be a pretty good receiver and just keep working at it.”
Thompson finished with 10 catches for 149 yards, which included the 18-yard reception that pushed UVa down to the 1 to set up Armstrong’s game-winning touchdown throw to tight end Grant Misch on the next snap. Thompson also had a rushing score earlier in the fourth quarter to pull the Cavaliers within 10 points of the Cardinals.
Since then, he’s stayed productive and is closing this regular-season campaign strongly. Thompson has caught for at least 89 yards four times in the last five contests and put together back-to-back 100-yard receiving performances against Notre Dame and Pittsburgh heading into this Saturday’s tilt with Virginia Tech.
Brumfield said it’s unbelievable how in only a year’s time Thompson adapted from former quarterback to standout playmaker.
“There honestly aren’t very many people who can do that,” Brumfield said. “And the thing is if you bring somebody in to compete for a starting [quarterback] role and then they’re not that starter, they can’t be a bad apple and a ruin the whole locker room. So, it takes a strong-willed person and a person who is just willing to play ball, because it could’ve turned for the worst. It could’ve went the other way and he could’ve been a bad apple or just gotten mad and said, ‘I want to play quarterback,’ and just left. But he was like, ‘I’m going to take this in stride. I want to play ball. I’m a football player.’”
Added Mendenhall: “Keytaon is just an amazing person. He works really hard with a smile. He uplifts others. He’s fiercely competitive, but also a genuine sportsman and just a class act in every possible way. I couldn’t think of someone else that would represent or is UVa football more than him, and is so productive in so many ways and is team-first every single day.”
Thompson’s legacy at UVa, according to Brumfield, is that he’s taught younger players to stay determined even if their original plan doesn’t pan out.
“To the high school players out there and aspiring college players,” Thompson said, “keep going and never lose confidence in yourself, and always keep working and keep believing because everything else will take care of itself.”