Every NFL team is looking for a leader on the backend of their defense who can make plays at all levels of the field. San Diego State’s Tariq Thompson checks all of those boxes.
A complete player who knows how to rally around his teammates, Thompson leaves the Aztecs for the next level with some impressive accolades to his name. Thompson played more than 3,000 career snaps on defense throughout his time at San Diego State and created a whopping 19 turnovers.
You probably haven’t heard a lot about him throughout this process. Prospects from San Diego State are used to having to work for every shred of recognition. I talked to Thompson about the draft process, reflected on his career with the Aztecs, and asked him to describe which type of player he’ll be at the next level.
JM: You had an opportunity to play in eight games this past season. You didn’t opt out, you didn’t have to transfer to another school. The Mountain West Conference was able to find a way to play football this year. How were you able to block out the noise and just focus on football?
TT: My support system played a huge role. My family, my friends, my girlfriend, they all offered me a tremendous amount of support throughout this season. I felt like I could go to them and lean on them whenever I needed. It gave me an opportunity to take care of business on the field. The conference did a great job salvaging the season after initially postponing it. They made sure the safety of us players was a priority. I was blessed to play one last season at San Diego State.
JM: You’re actually from San Diego. I’m sure it meant a lot to you to play one final season at home before making the jump to the next level.
TT: It was huge. I really enjoyed the opportunity to play one last year for my city. We lost the San Diego Chargers and it made me sad to see the city lose that team. I was just so thankful to play at San Diego State and represent the 619 one final time. I’m looking forward to the future and whatever it holds.
JM: When I put the tape on, the first thing that jumps out at me is how versatile you are. You played multiple positions and roles for your defense. Is there one position that fits you best at the next level?
TT: No, I don’t feel like there is one true fit for me. Like you said, I think I’m a versatile playmaker. I can play many roles. I’ve played free safety, strong safety, I’ve played in the box, I’ve played as a nickelback. Whatever my NFL team needs me to do, I’m willing and able to do it. I don’t feel like there’s just one specific position that I have to play.
JM: How did you manage such a diverse role? Was your relationship with your position coach and defensive coordinator the backbone of the role that you were able to play?
TT: When coach [Rocky] Long was still there in 2017, he gave me a chance to play a position he referred to as the “warrior position.” It was a bit of a nickel, free safety, and strong safety role. They asked me to do a lot. It required a ton of thinking. It was almost more mental than it was physical. Sitting down with my coaches and the defensive leaders of our team in 2017, guys like Kameron Kelly, Trey Lomax, Ronley Lakalaka, and Parker Baldwin, this was my freshman year. Those types of players really helped me develop. That’s what helped me excel at this level.
JM: What’s your favorite part of playing in the secondary?
TT: I just love making plays. Whether it’s an interception or a forced fumble, I didn’t have many sacks but I enjoy those as well (laughs). I hope to get a couple more of those in the future. I just love helping my teammates. I’ve always had the mindset that I have to help the other 52 guys on the team. Those guys are counting on me and I can’t let them down. I’m a competitor and I love helping my team win games.
JM: Speaking of making plays, you spend a lot of time around the ball. You leave San Diego State with 12 career interceptions and seven forced fumbles to your name. What is it about your game that allows you to make so many plays on the ball?
TT: My play recognition and having the support of my teammates are the two things that lead to my production. Our coaches did a great job of putting us in the best situation to make plays. I give them all the credit for doing that. They always put me in a position to be successful. I felt I was very successful in the role they asked me to play. My teammates deserve a ton of credit as well. If the 10 guys next to me aren’t doing their job, I can’t do mine either. We’ve all done a great job over these last four years. It's been an honor.
JM: I feel like San Diego State has always a fun defensive back in the draft. Guys like Damontae Kazee and Luq Barcoo come to mind. You’re next in line. What is it about this program that has allowed it to churn out fun, competitive defensive backs on what feels like a yearly basis?
TT: I feel like the coaching staff has done such a great job of developing players like Damontae Kazee. I’m not the only defensive back on this team that people should be talking about. Darren Hall and Dwayne Johnson Jr. are two excellent players as well. We’re an aggressive defense and that’s how we like to play the game. We love to make plays and we trust in our ability to do so in the open field. They gave us a great opportunity to do that. We had so many fun experiences here. We all feel like we’re going to make a seamless transition to the next level. I feel incredibly well prepared for what’s next.
JM: I love hearing that. Who would you say are some of the best offensive players you’ve had to play against?
TT: I can give you at least one name per position (laughs). Zach Wilson is the best quarterback I’ve ever played against. He’s a very intelligent quarterback. He gets the ball out quick and he has a great release. He’s very accurate with the ball. He’s a very smart, humble guy. He’s probably the best player I’ve ever played against, period. I played against running backs like Bryce Love and Kalen Ballage. Receivers like Frank Darby come to mind. Brandon Aiyuk was a first-round pick. He’s a great receiver, incredibly athletic after the catch. John Hightower from Boise State is a really good player as well. He’s with the Philadelphia Eagles now. Stanford always had some great tight ends, guys like Colby Parkinson and Kaden Smith. I’ve played against so many great players.
JM: That’s a great list. The NFL Scouting Combine isn’t going to be the same this year. The ongoing challenges created by the pandemic means that a lot of this process will be conducted virtually. How do you plan to navigate through the challenges that may come with that?
TT: I’m just trying to stay focused on getting better every single day. That is the task at hand right now. I can only control what I can control. I’m trying to become a better athlete right now. I’m getting in better shape. I’m working on my skills as a defensive back. I’m looking forward to my Pro Day. It’s another opportunity to prove myself.
JM: Another thing that really sticks out about your game is the lack of penalties. You’ve only been penalized three times despite playing more than 3,000 defensive snaps. That’s almost unheard of. Is there some luck involved with that or have you discovered some secret that allows you to play such disciplined football?
TT: It’s about discipline like you said. That’s what it comes down to for the most part. I try to avoid penalties in practice. I try to develop good habits. I know that I can’t hold. I can’t do those little things that lead to penalties. The coaching staff deserves a shout out for that as well. Our coaches are quick to call out a penalty in practice. We run through some drills with boxing gloves, or we may put a tennis ball in our hands, things that prevent us from holding. Holding is the most common penalty for a defensive back so it’s just about developing good habits. We put such a big emphasis on that in practice.
The penalties I got this year against Colorado, I thought they were kind of iffy because I didn’t hear a whistle (laughs). I’m a small player, I’m not going to do something after the whistle. I’m a clean player so I didn’t particularly agree with those penalties (laughs).
JM: I absolutely love that. I’ve really appreciated your time today, Tariq. In closing, what kind of impact is Tariq Thompson going to make at the next level?
TT: I’m going to be a competitor that wants to win. I’m somebody that will stop at nothing to help my team win. I’m willing to do whatever it takes. If my team needs me to be a star player on special teams, that’s what I’m going to do. I can go out there and play a versatile role on defense if that’s what’s needed of me. I have the athletic ability and knowledge to compete on a daily basis. I’m always looking to improve. I want to help my teammates become better players. I just want to win. That’s the kind of player you’re going to see at the next level.