University of Toledo senior receiver Cody Thompson often makes the spectacular play seem routine.
He will nonchalantly slide through the offensive line and grab a punt off the opposing punter’s foot for a touchdown, like he did against Virginia Military Institute in the Sept. 1 season opener.
He will casually haul in a touchdown pass with one hand on a diving grab in the corner of the end zone, like he did against Tulsa last season at the Glass Bowl.
He will fly by a defensive back down the sideline for a 78-yard score and quiet the home crowd, like he did in 2016 at BYU.
But make no mistake about it — the “wow” plays Thompson has become known for at Toledo are not random. They don’t happen on a whim during the flow of the game.
They are perfected in practice through hard work and repetition. They are visualized by Thompson before they are executed in a game.
Thompson also will be the first to credit his teammates for doing their part on a given play and allowing the big play to occur.
Take the punt block touchdown against VMI as an example. Thompson readily praises his special teams teammates Reggie Gilliam and Nick Kovacs for occupying VMI blockers and allowing him to come through the line untouched.
“That play wasn’t made in that moment,” Thompson said.
“A lot of the plays you see on the field were made previously. It’s not like it just happens out there. I mean occasionally it does, but there is a lot of work and preparation that goes into it before.
“Once you get out there everything slows down a little bit because you’ve done that before and know what to expect.”
If there were any doubts about Thompson’s recovery from his broken leg last season and his ability to continue to make big plays, the special teams play and a subsequent 38-yard scoring reception against VMI quickly put those to rest.
“It happened so fast,” Thompson said of the punt block TD.
“It was just like a half a second. So it was a rush and it was exciting because it was my first big play back [after] last year. It was nice to be back out there and contribute to this team’s success.”
As requested, Cody Thompson's punt block in slow-mo... pic.twitter.com/Y2MV2tLP7h— BCSN (@BCSNsports) September 4, 2018
It was fitting the first impact play of the season for Toledo came from Thompson, even if it was on special teams.
“I didn’t quite see the block,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “I kind of asked what happened on the headset. The response was, ‘Well, Cody just blocked a punt and scored a touchdown.’ I sort of rolled my eyes so to speak and said, ‘Yeah, that figures.’
“How fitting that he misses an entire season with a broken leg and he comes back and everybody is waiting for the first 60 or 70-yard touchdown and just how he goes, it’s in workmanlike fashion and it’s on special teams.”
Going into Toledo’s home game Sept. 15 with No. 22 Miami (Fla.) at the Glass Bowl, Thompson has put together a career that makes him an all-time great receiver at the school. He has 2,733 receiving yards, 21 touchdown receptions, and a yards per catch average north of 20 yards. In 2015, he was third in the nation in yards per catch, then ninth in 2016. His stats pop from the page, including scoring receptions of 75-plus yards in each of the past three seasons.
But it’s Thompson’s work ethic and preparation that are the first things his coaches and teammates mention in how he is able to make such impactful plays in game situations.
“I see how he comes to practice every day and does all the little things that no one really notices and just how he prepares,” UT junior receiver Diontae Johnson said. “That play that he made [against VMI] happened way before the game.”
At 6-feet-2 and 207 pounds, Thompson has good size and athleticism and his traits like his leaping ability make him tough to guard in one-on-one situations.
“His jumping ability stands out,” Johnson said. “No one really knows that he can jump. He can high-point the ball and he can go up and make a play and come down with it.”
UT receivers coach Mike Bellamy said he is never surprised when Thompson makes a play against the quickest defensive backs he goes up against.
“He might not run a 4.2 [40-yard dash], but if he is going up against a DB who runs a 4.2, I’m going to put all my money on him that he will end up getting the ball even if he is slower than that guy,” Bellamy said. “He just doesn’t quit. He is wound up and he has a high motor.”
Not everyone who has size and athletic ability and works hard in practice can translate that to on-field success on the college stage. That’s what sets apart Thompson from his peers.
“He has a switch that he turns on when he’s on the football field,” Bellamy said. “Cody knows and understands that this is his office and when he comes to his office, he comes to work. He prepares himself and he clicks on a switch and has another gear.”
Thompson’s big-play ability dates to his high school career at Huron High School where after spending his sophomore year as a receiver, Thompson was the starting quarterback his final two seasons.
His former coach at Huron, Tony Legando, said he always thought Thompson’s skill set would translate to college even when he was lightly recruited out of high school. But Legando still is impressed by the highlight plays Thompson has shown a knack for.
“I think it’s surprising to see at [the college] level, against that kind of athlete that he’s playing against, he’s still dazzling,” Legando said. “It’s one thing to dazzle at a Division IV or Division V high school, but to take it to a D-I level and see he is still doing what he is doing is pretty incredible.”
Those who have watched Thompson throughout his career at Toledo undoubtedly have seen his go-to spin move after the catch. While that often leads to missed tackles, it also allows him to bounce off would-be tacklers and avoid direct hits from the defense.
“I don’t really think about it,” Thompson said. “It just kind of happens. Sometimes I’ll make a guy miss with it, but a lot of times I’ll see a guy coming and it’s so I don’t take a direct hit. I’ll kind of roll up and I’ll bounce off a lot of them.”
Thompson gets a good ribbing from players and coaches about the oft-used move and Johnson joked it’s the only move Thompson has up his sleeve.
“I’ve got some other moves,” Thompson responded. “I might not be as quick and agile as Diontae, but I have a couple moves.”
Bellamy said nothing Thompson does on the field should come as a surprise to those who observe him daily, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
“For us as a staff and as a team, I don’t think it’s something that surprises us when we see it happen because we have seen it in practice,” Bellamy said. “As a coach you try not to get caught up watching a certain player during the game, but he’s one of those guys that you would buy a ticket to watch him play.”
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