Bronco’s big offense will have a big playmaker is Keytaon Thompson

By Jerry Ratcliffe

keytaon thompson

Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Keytaon Thompson (99) runs the ball down the field and scores a touchdown during a game against Abilene Christian Wildcats on Saturday, Nov. 21 at Scott Stadium. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference (Erin Edgerton/Daily Progress).

Bronco Mendenhall didn’t hold back after practice Friday night when he was asked to comment about Virginia’s offense.

“Yeah, we’re going to score a lot of points,” Mendenhall said. “That’s the number one driver of who wins in college football.”

Among all of the potential Cavaliers playmakers, it’s impossible to ignore Keytaon Thompson. A former quarterback at Mississippi State, Thompson transferred to UVA for the pandemic-spoiled 2020 season.

Battling eventual starter Brennan Armstrong all through training camp last August, Thompson suffered a shoulder injury that ended the competition. He couldn’t throw the football.

However, that didn’t mean he couldn’t play football. Thompson, who grew up in New Orleans where he became the state of Louisiana’s No. 1 ranked prospect his senior year, wanted to contribute and moved to wide receiver.

When Armstrong couldn’t answer the bell for a couple of games, UVA’s offensive coaches moved Thompson around from receiver to sometimes running back to sometimes quarterback. He couldn’t throw the ball, but opponents didn’t know it and had to respect the threat until finally figuring it out.

Still, with such a hybrid role that was thrust upon him late in camp, Thompson played in nine of 10 games. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder rushed 39 times for 234 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught seven passes for 98 yards and three TDs.

In a high-scoring shootout upset over No. 15 North Carolina, Thompson rushed 10 times for 43 yards and a score, including a 5-yard rush for a first down on a fake punt to ice the win. Thompson would go in motion, quickly dash up under center, take the snap and get as many yards as he could on a quarterback sneak.

With all that in mind, fast forward to training camp 2021. After a solid spring practice, a summer of conditioning, Thompson has embraced his multifaceted role and is ready to take on the world.

“I feel totally different having a full offseason to work on my game and actually know what I’ll be doing going into the season as far as assignments,” Thompson said after Friday night’s practice. “I’m really excited for this season. I’m trying to cherish everything and get better every day.”

He may know what he’s doing assignment-speaking, going into games, but in training camp, he usually doesn’t get a good idea of what the next day’s practice holds until the night before.

He’s practicing at wide receiver, running back and, yes, quarterback. He spends 50 percent of his time working with offensive coordinator Robert Anae, another 50 percent with quarterbacks coach Jason Beck. Oh, and there’s a little left over for receivers coach Marques Hagans.

“I usually find out the night before, so I look at the notes and take it from there,” the versatile Thompson said of learning his multiple positions.

Thompson is going to be one of those guys who as soon as he breaks the huddle, opposing defenses are going to be sure to point out where he’s lining up.

“It’s funny you say that,” Thompson said. “Just a few minutes ago the [UVA] defense was doing that, pointing me out, where I lined up and was trying to figure out if I was going in motion or not. It gives the defense something to think about.”

For sure.

“I think defenses are going to have to figure out where he’s going to be and where he’s going to run at all times because he can do it all,” said Cavaliers defensive back Darrius Bratton. “He’s very dangerous with the ball in his hand. He just makes things happen.”

Every time he touched the ball last season, he averaged seven yards. There was a 7.6 percent chance that every time he touched the ball, he was going to end up in the end zone.

Imagine those numbers now that Virginia has figured out how to use his immense talent and actually has a better plan.

“He’s dangerous now,” said UVA senior defensive back De’Vante Cross. “He’s a good runner, stepping out of tackles. You’ve got to at least know where he’s at because he’s probably going to have the ball in his hands.”

With a background as a dual-threat quarterback for two seasons at Mississippi State, having that experience is a distinct advantage for Thompson, especially after he catches the ball and is looking for open space.

“I think [quarterback knowledge] helps a lot, especially in reading coverages, because me and BA (quarterback Brennan Armstrong) are always on the same page,” Thompson said. “I read the coverage just as fast as he does and I can adjust my route according to that. Once I take those first couple of steps, I know what [coverage] the defense is in.”

Consider the fact that because Virginia didn’t have a strong running attack last season, Anae didn’t have the luxury of running a lot of play-action, which didn’t give receivers a lot of room to operate in because the run game wasn’t a real threat. That is now a thing of the past, which should help Thompson and his receiver mates more room.

Thompson even predicted that defenses may be surprised at what Virginia throws at them.

“I think this offense will be really creative, something you guys have never seen before,” Thompson said.

Mendenhall expected growth from Thompson over the past offseason and hasn’t been disappointed.

“The number of things he can do,” Mendenhall said in answer to what has impressed him. “I would say if there has to be an area where he’s taken another step, it’s receiving, getting open, body control and that he doesn’t drop [the ball]. He’s a tough matchup, tough on the linebacker, obviously because of the size.”

Thompson agreed to that assessment, adding route running, where he has made his biggest stride.

Because he lines up all over the field, coaches and teammates have tagged him with a bunch of nicknames from the typical “Swiss Army Knife,” to “Gadget Guy,” and so many more.

The one he most prefers is “Trick Bag,” which will likely grow on the Virginia fan base early on this season.

Regardless of the moniker, add dangerous to the description, a playmaker the likes we haven’t seen in these parts since perhaps Hagans back in the early years of this century.

Hagans almost made legendary Bobby Bowden curse, and Thompson could drive opponents to do likewise come September.