Because of how things ended, DeAndre Thompkins’s first career 100-yard game won’t be what most remembered. Nor the trickier-than-it-looked 70-yard touchdown catch that gave Penn State the lead.
Because the Nittany Lions lost to Michigan State, it will be the catch Thompkins didn’t make that will stick out. A fourth-and-3 slant that hit off the hands of the junior wide receiver, giving the ball to the Spartans, who marched down field for the winning field goal.
That thought sat with Thompkins after the Lions’ 27-24 loss on Saturday. But thanks to his teammates, it hasn’t lingered.
Senior DaeSean Hamilton spoke to him, reminding him of his own costly drop last season against Pitt that might have kept the Lions out of the College Football Playoff.
“Ham, with the Pitt game, he kind of reminded me, you know, the type of situation he was in,” Thompkins said. “And I look up to him. He’s like my big brother. So that’s one thing that I took into account.
“So I watched the play. It happened. And I’m on to the next week.”
A good sign for the Lions, who will need Thompkins’ big-play ability down the stretch as they host Rutgers on Saturday and look to earn a berth to a New Year’s Six bowl.
Teams have generally played it safer against Penn State, looking to take away the deep balls that helped fuel the offense a year ago.
But Thompkins caught his first two touchdowns of the season in each of the last two weeks, wrestling away a 37-yard score against Ohio State and then hauling in the 70-yarder vs. Michigan State.
With the Lions spreading the ball around — four players have at least 32 catches — Thompkins is fifth on the team in receptions (22) and receiving yards (341). But the stats don’t tell the whole story, as Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis called him the team’s “best pure receiver” heading into the game against the Spartans.
“I think DeAndre is playing at an extremely high level,” Gattis said. “I think his numbers may not show the impact he’s having on our team, but I think he’s probably playing at the best level in our room from a consistency standpoint.
“I’m really, really pleased with him and his performance.”
It’s taken a lot of work to get to that point.
A four-star prospect out of Swansboro High School in North Carolina, Thompkins had dreams of playing immediately for the Lions, enrolling in January 2014 just as James Franklin and his staff were taking over.
But physically, he wasn’t ready. Strength coach Dwight Galt noted that following summer that he had the biggest room to build on his 5-foot-11 frame.
“DeAndre gained 16 pounds. He put 40 pounds on his bench, he put 35 pounds on his squat, he cleaned 275,” Galt said at the time. “He couldn’t even (power) clean before.”
And though he initially tested as one of the team’s fastest players, it didn’t entirely translate at first to the field.
“When DeAndre came in, he was more of a pure, fast athlete,” Gattis said. “He was a kid who could run (from) a timing standpoint, but I don’t know if he played up to that speed on the field. Physically, he was more of a wildcat quarterback, played a little bit of the position in high school and he had to get caught up a little at the position.”
All of that wasn’t easy for Thompkins to hear at first, especially when it led to a redshirt.
He has a different view of it now in his junior season.
“My first year, my redshirt year, it kind of exposed a lot of things that I needed to work on,” Thompkins said. “Blocking was one of those. So that’s kind of one thing that once you improve on your biggest mistakes, or your biggest problems, you kind of start developing getting a role for how can you better yourself as a player.”
He has since become known as one of the better blockers among the receiving group, leading Gattis to call him a more complete player.
“We’ve seen the guy develop,” Gattis said. “When DeAndre came in, his weakness was his physicality. And I think DeAndre has taken his greatness weakness and turned it into his greatest strength.”
Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry is one of 56 coaches under consideration for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
The Lions defense ranks seventh nationally in scoring, allowing 14.8 points per game.
Pry is one of six Big Ten assistants on the list, along with former long-time Lions coach Larry Johnson (Ohio State), Don Brown (Michigan), Harlon Barnett (Michigan State), Mike Hankwitz (Northwestern) and Jim Leonhard (Wisconsin).