If Lazedrick Thompson keeps running like he did against Duke, the turning point in his Tulane career will boil down to one play.
With the Green Wave facing a fourth-and-1 at its own 42 early in the second quarter, coach Curtis Johnson called a timeout and asked Thompson, a redshirt sophomore, if he thought he could get the first down.
His answer: “definitely.” Off went the punt team and in went Thompson, who barreled through two would-be tacklers for a 14-yard gain up the middle.
“I was begging the coach to get me the ball,” he said. “I knew I could get it.”
Thompson ran for 9 yards on the next snap. And 12 more one play later. By the end of the day, he had rushed 19 times for a career-high 124 yards, almost 100 more than his previous best and only 14 fewer than his total for his first 11 games combined.
Most of those gains came right up the gut, where Thompson used his 6-foot-1, 217-pound frame to knock defenders backward repeatedly.
It was just one game, but his performance drew a favorable comparison to predecessor Orleans Darkwa, a four-year starter who made the Miami Dolphins roster as an undrafted free agent this season.
“He’s a battering ram,” running backs coach David Johnson said. “He’s similar to Orleans but he’s faster. Those guys from Duke just didn’t want to tackle him anymore. He was bringing pain to those guys.”
Thompson knows about pain. It took him this long to have his breakthrough because he tore an ACL near the end of his senior year at St. Charles Catholic in 2011. He spend his first season at Tulane recuperating from that severe injury and was not 100 percent confident in the knee last year, when he picked up 68 yards on 22 carries (3.1 average).
He ran with authority in practice, when no tackling was allowed, but was tentative in his limited opportunities during games. David Johnson said he also struggled to get his pad level down low enough, something he still has to work on today.
The tentativeness, though, is long gone. Although Thompson averaged only 2.7 yards per carry in Tulane’s first three games this year, he earned his extra time against Duke with seven tough runs against Southeastern Louisiana a week earlier as Tulane took off valuable time on a late drive.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Curtis Johnson said. “It’s the first time he’s been healthy since he’s been here. He’s a keep-possession-of-the-ball, bleed-the-clock runner.”
Thompson still has two more years of eligibility left after this one, but it would have been understandable if he had become impatient. Redshirt freshman Sherman Badie torched Tulsa for 215 yards in the season opener while Thompson touched the ball five times. True freshman Dontrell Hilliard had more rushing and receiving yards than Thompson in the first two games, too.
As the seventh of seven children in his family, he knew all about his waiting his turn. Thompson has four older sisters and two older brothers, so Tulane’s crowded backfield, which includes senior Dante Butler, did not concern him.
“A lot of hard work is finally paying off,” he said. “It feels great. When I was coming back from the knee injury, at first I wasn’t quite confident, but then I’d get a couple of yards here and there and just finally felt comfortable.”
Little went right for Tulane in its 47-13 loss to Duke, but Thompson was a huge exception. Getting good blocking up front, he made the most of his holes on almost every carry. He gained 10 or more yards four times, something he had not done once in the first three games.
Curtis Johnson, a disciple of Saints coach Sean Payton and his running back-by-committee philosophy, will not guarantee a heavy load for Thompson against Rutgers, saying each game is different.
One thing is clear, though. When he does touch the ball, he is a heavy load.
Thompson insisted David Johnson’s assertion that Duke’s defenders did not want to tackle him was more than just position-coach praise. It was real.
“We heard the guys saying they didn’t want to tackle us anymore,” he said. “They said they were getting tired of tackling No. 33 (Thompson).”