All of Cedric Thompson’s life, he’s been the underdog.
He grew up in Bombay Beach, Calif., a Southern California desert wasteland, far from the reach of college football recruiters. He came to Minnesota — the only high-major program to offer him a scholarship — without a position.
But if the past four years are any indicator of Thompson’s determination, he’ll overcome expectations — whether he’s drafted this weekend or picked up by a team as an undrafted free agent.
“Once I got a shot, that’s all I’ve ever needed,” Thompson said. “That’s all I ever needed, all my life. If I get drafted, I get drafted. If I don’t, I don’t. But once I get my shot, that’s all that matters because I’m going to run away with it.”
Finding his niche at Minnesota
When Thompson first started practicing at Minnesota, he was preparing with the team’s walk-ons. Though the former Calipatria High School running back didn’t have a set position with the team, he did have speed.
“Nobody expected very much out of him. He was athletic, but that was about it,” said longtime girlfriend Charlotte Paguyo.
But as time passed and Thompson became a defensive back, his impact on the field steadily grew.
In his freshman year, he tallied 16 tackles in seven games. The next year, he started eight contests at safety and played in all 13. As a junior, Thompson led Minnesota with 79 tackles. But he was still an afterthought.
Entering his senior season, Thompson took charge.
He walked into Jerry Kill’s office and told the head coach he wanted to fill the defensive leadership void vacated by Brock Vereen.
And that’s what Thompson did, taking the reins of Minnesota’s talented defense and amassing 83 tackles over the course of his senior season.
The Gophers safety saved Minnesota from being upset by Purdue in a 39-38 victory, recording two interceptions. On the second pick, Thompson made a break on the ball and dived to intercept it with just minutes left in the contest, securing Minnesota’s victory.
That play was one NFL teams brought up when they met with Thompson face-to-face leading up to the draft.
“They know everything about you inside and out, so I don’t have to show them anything. They know more about me than I probably know about myself,” Thompson said.
Navigating the Draft process
Because Thompson wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, he made sure he impressed teams at Minnesota’s Pro Day in March.
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds, below the 4.40-second range NFL scouts covet. And since then, teams have been frequently reaching out to him. Paguyo said more than 20 teams called Thompson last weekend alone.
“I had some really good numbers, and it made people go back and look at my film because I think the big question was, ‘How athletic really am I?’” Thompson said.
“On my Pro Day, I just opened a lot of eyes. Now, they see I’m athletic and a really good football player as well.”
The draft process can be nerve-wracking because there are no guarantees, especially for a prospect like Thompson.
Vereen has been a key resource for Thompson over the past four months as he’s gone from being a player flying under teams’ radar to a likely selection.
“I was in [Thompson’s] position a year ago,” Vereen said. “You have your workouts with your teams, you have your visits. But the majority of your time, you’re just working out and just waiting. Four months feels like a year.”
Vereen and Thompson talk about once per week, with the one-year NFL veteran Vereen offering advice.
“His name might have blown up after his Pro Day, but [for] anybody who’s played with him, his performance wasn’t a surprise at all,” Vereen said. “He’s just one of those guys who’s just a freak athlete [and] smart — definitely as smart of a [defensive back] as you’ll come across. He just loves the game.”
Taking the next step
Thompson said the teams he’s met with have all given him similar feedback.
They like Thompson’s ability to play near the line of scrimmage as a strong safety and as an active tackler, trying to stop the run game.
But as he enters the NFL, where players are bigger and faster, teams would like to see Thompson improve his play in open space and show he’s capable of playing free safety.
When Vereen came into the league, he said he noticed the speed differences of the game right away.
“Guys are faster. Reggie Bush is a lot harder to tackle than a random running back you’ll face in the Big Ten,” he said. “Once you get your confidence about you and realize these are the same guys you were playing with in college, things start to slow down.”
Thompson’s Pro Day showed NFL teams he’s a heady player that also has great athletic skills. If that means a team selects him this weekend, he intends on making the most of the opportunity.
After all, that’s what Thompson always seems to do.
“A lot of teams like me for who I am as a person. That means more to me … than how good I play,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to seize the moment every time you’re out there with that team.”