Of all the Penn State players and coaches who ran out of the south end tunnel on Senior Day Saturday, only two have had a longer continuous tenure at PSU than their head coach:
DeAndre Thompkins and Chasz Wright.
Both fifth-year Nittany Lions committed to Penn State under Bill O’Brien and actually arrived on campus when the football program literally had no head coach.
Thompkins and Wright were part of a quintet of recent high school graduates who enrolled early at PSU in January 2014 — after O’Brien left and before James Franklin was officially hired.
Of those five, only Thompkins (from North Carolina) and Wright (Virginia) have made it through five years at Penn State. The other three:
Quarterback Michael O’Connor, a Canadian, redshirted at Penn State in 2014, then transferred to the University of British Columbia. In his first year, he lead BC to the Canadian national title.
Defensive tackle Tarrow Barney, who transferred from Northwest Mississippi Community College, appeared in 25 games for Penn State, starting one, before graduating after the 2015 season.
New Jersey defensive tackle Antoine White stayed at Penn State for three seasons, playing two, before transferring to Albany State after the 2016 season to play for Greg Gattuso, the former Penn State defensive lineman who is Albany’s head coach. Over the past two seasons, White saw plenty of action and in 2018 he was third on the team in tackles for a loss (6.5) and sacks (3.5).
'KIND OF WEIRD'
Thompkins and Wright arrived on the University Park campus by Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. Franklin was introduced as the head coach on Jan. 11 and classes started at Penn State on Jan. 13.
"It’s kind of weird knowing that you’ve been here longer than the head coach has,” Thompkins said after playing his final home game in Beaver Stadium on Saturday, a 38-3 win over Maryland.
“There was a lot of mystery going into who was going to be the head coach, what his personality was going to be, what was going to be the difference between him and O’Brien.
“Me, Chasz, Antoine — all the guys who came in early — we kind of had the mindset that no matter who the coach is that comes in and no matter what his personality was, we were just going to take it and do the best we could with it. Then we’d go forward.”
Thompkins and Wright made the most of their 1,780 days at Penn State — and counting. Thompkins started 20 games at wide receiver, and led the Nittany Lions in punt returns in 2015, ’17 and ’18. He earned his degree in psychology last December and is on pace to earn a second degree in criminology.
Wright, who played both guard and offensive tackle, has had 16 starts over the past three seasons. He graduated with his degree in telecommunications last May.
Thompkins believes there is one major reason both he and Wright stayed the course:
Penn State has the right stuff.
“We did commit to a different coach,” Thompkins said. “But more importantly, we committed to the school and the team more than the coach. We didn’t know what we were getting into. But we were 100% into Penn State.”
The path wasn’t always an easy one for Thompkins. After a redshirt season in 2014, he was relegated to punt returning duties in 2015 — losing four fumbles in the process — before he broke into the starting lineup on a part-time basis in 2016. In 2018, he’s made just five starts, including Saturday against Maryland.
“It was a rough road in the beginning, just trying to dig in and buy into the messages that Franklin was giving,” Thompkins said. “A lot of it was because of the older guys having had multiple coaches. With me, I came in having committed to one coach and then having to be into another coach. It was a rough road, but we eventually we got on the same path and made things happen.”
BY THE NUMBERS
As he heads into the final game of his Penn State career in a yet-to-be-determined bowl game, Thompkins has an outside shot at amassing an impressive 2,000 career all-purpose yards. He has 1,768 yards overall. That includes five rushes for 12 yards, one of them a six-yard TD against Rutgers in 2015.
He’s made 79 receptions for 1,181 yards, an average of 14.95 yards per catch, with five TDs. Thompkins has excelled at punt returns, handling 65 for 675 yards, for a 10.4-yard average, with two TDs. In 13 different games in his Penn State career, Thompkins has had three or more receptions.
Thompkins ranks No. 7 on the Penn State’s all-time punt return yardage list, with a good chance to catch both No. 6 Gary Hayman (717 yards) and Derrick Williams (724) in the bowl game.
Even though redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler has shared the punt return duties in 2018 (Thompkins has 18, Hamler 12), Thompkins ranks No. 24 nationally and third in the Big Ten in that category, at 9.8 yards per return. In 2017, Thompkins was the Big Ten leader in punt returns and was No. 5 nationally, with a 13.3-yard average.
FRESH MEMORIES AND FRESHMEN
His biggest memory?
“I can’t say the Whiteout game where we beat Ohio State, because I had a concussion that game and don’t remember it,” he replied with a self-effacing chuckle.
Instead, the modest, introspective Thompkins characteristically offered the Penn State experience as his most cherished memory — which is why he picked PSU in the first place — over an individual accomplishment.
“I would definitely say some of the moments in the locker room, with some of the guys that I’ve really grown to get close to,” he said after Saturday’s game. “They’re guys who are going to be successful in life, who know it’s more than just football. It’s a family, it’s a culture, it’s a brotherhood. To have built that really means a lot.
“…I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I love the guys I’ve met here — the ones who have already come through and even the freshmen.”
Speak of the devil…
A minute earlier, Hamler — the WR room’s talkative yang to Thompkins’ thoughtful yin — had interrupted the post-game interview with Thompkins. Hamler shoved his cellphone just inches from Thompkins’ mouth.
“Can you tell me how you felt about today’s game?” Hamler asked in a mocking reporter-type voice.
“Yeah,” Thompkins grinned, “I felt K.J. could have run a little faster and made a few more people miss.”
It was one of Thompkins’ best returns of the year.