Running back-turned-safety gives U's secondary a boost

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2012 - 6:43 AM

It was national signing day in 2011, and Cedric Thompson, a little-known running back in a tiny town in the California desert, had no place to go. And then his phone rang.

"I was shocked when Minnesota called me," said the 19-year-old, who rushed for 1,800 yards and 27 touchdowns during his senior year at Calipatria High. "I came [on a visit] that weekend, and I signed my papers on Monday."

And just like that, the Gophers had a new ... safety?

"Honestly, when I came here, I didn't know where I would play," Thompson said. "After a week or two here, coach [Jay] Sawvel said I would be on defense, but I still didn't know for a while if I would be a cornerback or safety."

It turned out to be the latter, and it looks like a great fit. Thompson made his first career interception Saturday, and the coaches have cited the safeties -- Thompson, along with former cornerbacks Brock Vereen and Derrick Wells -- as a big reason for the Gophers' strong start on defense.

"They've gotten bigger and stronger. They're smart. They run fast. They make plays. They make you look good," said coach Jerry Kill. "Sometimes you make good moves in coaching. Those were good moves, moving them to safety."

Only thing was, Thompson knew nothing about defense.

"It was difficult, because I had never learned defensive schemes. It's like a whole other world," he said. "But I love it. I'm getting comfortable with getting everyone aligned right, making sure the ball stays in front of me, communicating with [Wells]. I'm glad they called."

Allowed to run

Max Shortell is a running quarterback, he really is. But only if the defense allows it.

Gopher coaches gave Shortell several chances to call his own number last Saturday, but nearly every time, the sophomore spotted a Syracuse alignment at the line of scrimmage that made other options more tempting.

"The defense didn't give us what we needed to check to" a quarterback draw, Shortell said, and the result was only one 5-yard gain for Shortell.

Not that he minded. Shortell had plenty to look for against the Orange, who blitzed all night.

"We knew they were going to bring some pressure," Shortell said. "We didn't know [it would be] almost every play. We thought they might go into a soft passing shell, but no -- they kept bringing it every play. Our line did a tremendous job of picking up those blitzes."

He hopes that Saturday's game might be a little less harried because he would like to run more. And ultimately, he would like to beat Iowa, one of the first teams to recruit him two years ago.

"I liked Iowa. I really thought I might end up there," he said.

Shortell attended the Hawkeyes' summer camp in 2010 as one of two quarterbacks, and "I did unbelievably well." When the other quarterback committed elsewhere, the Mission Hills, Kan., native expected to be offered a scholarship.

But when Iowa coaches seemed lukewarm about an offer, he decided to keep looking.

"Now I'm so glad I ended up here, getting a chance to go up against them."

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