CHARLOTTESVILLE — Being asked to play all over the football field last season took Keytaon Thompson back to his childhood in Louisiana.
“Almost like you’re playing with your friends in the backyard again,” said Thompson. “Running around and lining up at all these different positions and learning new things each and every day.”
Thompson came to Virginia as a transfer quarterback from Mississippi State. He had shown flashes of his dual-threat talent with the Bulldogs. Then, following a coaching change and the addition of a transfer quarterback, Thompson went looking for a new home.
He found it in Charlottesville.
But after immersing himself in the Cavaliers’ playbook going into last fall, he suffered a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. The injury meant he wouldn’t get the chance to compete with Brennan Armstrong for the starting job, but neither Thompson nor the Virginia coaching staff gave up on the possibility that the former four-star prospect could be an impact player for the offense.
“That was really, really tough for me,” said Thompson, also a basketball star at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans. “After learning the offense and putting in all the work then suffering an injury, that really had an effect on me. I tried to make the best of it and look at it in a positive light and that’s how I ended up playing the slash and playing receiver and running back and quarterback. So I guess some good kind of came out of the injury.”
With his freshly-acquired knowledge of the offense as a whole, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Thompson ended up playing some quarterback, some wide receiver, some running back.
“He can, in some ways, make it look so easy,” said quarterbacks coach Jason Beck. “But when you step back and realize everything he’s doing, it’s pretty impressive.”
Thompson’s final stat line: 243 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Seven receptions for 98 yards and three scores. And 1 for 3 passing.
He memorably turned a fourth down gamble of a fake punt call from disaster to success when he reversed direction and picked up the first down to seal an upset win over North Carolina. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said he considers Thompson’s official position “football player.”
“That is exactly how we intend to use Keytaon,” said Mendenhall. “Will he play quarterback? Yes. Will he play tight end? Yes. Will he play running back? Yes. Will he play slot receiver? Yes. Will he play X receiver? Yes. Will he play Z receiver? Yes. Will he be on the punt team? Certainly. Will he be on punt return? Yes. We’re on a mission to have as many boxes checked for positions ever played.”
Beck said UVa is careful to limit how much throwing work Thompson is doing this spring as he rebuilds strength in his shoulder going into his senior year.
Thompson said that, while he couldn’t shoulder a full quarterbacking load right now, he expects he’ll be able to by the time fall camp rolls around.
Still, with Armstrong back after a strong debut season at quarterback, the Cavaliers will once again be looking for other ways to get Thompson on the field.
For the offensive coaching staff, led by coordinator Robert Anae, it’s a fun challenge to spitball new and unusual ways to involve Thompson.
“It just opens up the possibility of things you can do and how to utilize him,” Beck said. “It takes somebody who really works at it and is really smart on their end to be able to do that. The more we’ve asked, the more he’s responded.”
Thompson said by the end of the year, nothing he was asked to do surprised him. He did, however, pass on the opportunity to punt in the season finale against Virginia Tech, he said.
“It’s playing football,” said Thompson. “Lining up at outside receiver, inside receiver, quarterback, running back. At the end of the day I feel like I’m still playing football and still having fun.”