BATON ROUGE, La. -- He probably thought he was prepared to compete at the time, but Corey Thompson can now admit that it blew his mind when he first set foot on LSU’s practice field as a freshman.
He had been an all-state safety and certainly has athletic genes -- both of his parents were college athletes -- but the speed of the players around him, the increased complexity of the playbook and the intricacies of playing safety in college initially made life rough for Thompson.
“Sometimes it was a little bit overwhelming,” Thompson said. “I got tired, I got frustrated, questioned myself a few times, but I’m good now.”
He eventually made the transition in fine fashion. Thompson played in all 13 games in 2012 as a true freshman, mostly covering kicks on special teams, and had claimed a starting spot by the midway point of his second season.
He had started five of the last six games in 2013 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M -- an ailment that has kept him out of the Tigers’ spring practice while he recovers from offseason surgery.
Now Thompson and his fellow veterans must help a new class of freshman safeties overcome the natural frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies their first taste of life in the SEC. That group, which includes ESPN’s No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect for 2014, Jamal Adams, along with Devin Voorhies and John Battle, is one of the nation’s top collection of safety signees and will almost certainly compete for playing time in 2014.
Les Miles confirmed as much after Saturday’s scrimmage, when a reporter asked whether any safeties had earned a starting spot yet.
“I don’t think that decision will be made until the freshman class comes in. We’ll be in two-a-days and kind of decide who the best guys are,” Miles said.
“It’ll be interesting to see the young guys come in, make a name for themselves,” Thompson said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all get together and work out, do some drills together and get into fall camp, teach the young guys how to do it and they’ll be good from there.”
Martin intercepted two passes in Saturday’s scrimmage and Jefferson had one, causing Miles to remark afterward that he thinks the safeties are playing better. If that’s the case, that would be a good sign -- since safety was a fairly inconsistent position for the Tigers in 2013. Senior Craig Loston was an old hand at safety by then, but Martin was the only other experienced starter -- and he had started just once prior to last fall.
It was a rocky learning experience for all involved, which was part of the reason that Mills finally shifted from cornerback to fill in at safety against Arkansas and then start there in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.
“It was a curve, just trying to be more of a vocal leader and stepping up in a position, trying to be a first-time starter and getting to know the defense more from changing positions,” Martin said. “Because when I first got here, I was playing strong and I mixed in free safety. So it’s all about knowing the defense.”
That last part will probably be the biggest hurdle for the newcomers once they arrive this summer. Adams is LSU’s highest-rated safety signee in the ESPN prospect rankings since Loston (the No. 1 safety in 2009), so clearly he has the physical tools to excel in college. It might be only a matter of time until he cashes in on that star potential, but it’s no simple task catching on to the job that awaits him at LSU.
“One thing is the speed of the game, but the next is really just knowing your plays, knowing how to mix in different calls and stuff like that because you’re the quarterback of the defense at safety,” Thompson said. “I’m making calls every play, so I have to know what’s going on, where people are lining up at and give them different calls and stuff.”
The veterans plan to help teach the newcomers from the moment they arrive on campus. Once they learn the intricacies of the position, that’s when the competition will truly begin -- and there will be plenty of that.
“That’s what football is all about,” Mills said. “It’s about that competitive area, the competitive nature. You have to be competitive whether it’s on the field, off the field, in practice, wherever you are.”