The 3-3-5 defense’s rise to fame came when Brian Urlacher played for the University of New Mexico in the late 90s. The idea of a hybrid linebacker and safety captured the imagination of college football. Used to the cookie-cutter players in the NFL with their corresponding jersey numbers, seeing number 44 play in all phases of the game was a breath of fresh air.
Once Urlacher showed how effective a player with his versatility could be in Rocky Long’s defense, coaches who employ the 3-3-5 have looked for athletes who could fit the mold the NFL Hall of Famer created. Every player at the position – dubbed the “Lobo” at UNM and the “Aztec” at SDSU – has attempted to duplicate Urlacher’s stamp on that position. Patrick McMorris, for example, mans the same spot for the Aztecs as Urlacher did for the Lobos. McMorris is more of a DB than LB, but his role is essentially the same when he lines up for SDSU.
Just as revolutionary to the defense, though without the fanfare, was the way Aztec great Tariq Thompson played the Warrior safety position. Thompson starred for SDSU from 2017 to 2020. Beginning game one of his true freshman season, he started 47 consecutive contests.
“Tariq was a professional football player in college from his understanding of the game,” Dwayne Johnson, Thompson’s former teammate, and current New York Giants safety, told EVT. “Playing with Tariq allowed me to get a better understanding of the game, formations, personnel, down and distance, coaching tendencies, etc.”
Like Urlacher, the hometown hero gave a new definition to the role he played in the 3-3-5. As their name indicates, the two Warrior safety positions used to be nearly interchangeable, with the player manning the “field” side more of a free safety and the “boundary” safety closer to a strong safety.
Thompson remade the position. He played more like a third corner without giving up any of the physicality a Warrior safety has traditionally brought to the defense. Moving forward, Thompson will become the type coaches will look for when choosing future players for the position. Last season, Thompson’s former teammate, Trenton Thompson, filled in exceptionally well in the same role. With Trenton Thompson’s graduation, SDSU is looking to fill the position again for the upcoming season.
“Confidence,” Thompson answered flatly when asked what an athlete needs to play Warrior safety. “That’s an important factor for the DB position in general, and football players in general. Especially at the DB position, if you don’t have confidence, it’s hard to make plays ‘cause you don’t trust yourself. You’ve got to believe in yourself. All the guys there are talented enough. They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t.”
“It’s something I tried to instill in the guys when I was there. When I came back for practice, I told them the same thing. At the end of the day, everyone is gifted, everyone has their special tools. They’re there for a reason. I’m there for a resource if they ever need it, but those guys are ballin. I can’t wait to see them grow this year.”
A trendsetter who plays with an instinct and creativity that defies convention, it is unsurprising that “confidence” is the characteristic he points to. Artists like Thompson excel off-script only if their faith in themselves is strong enough to play their unique style. Thompson is one of the special people who exist as the avant-garde. This quality made him one of the best defenders to ever play for the Aztecs. It has also made it difficult for him at the next level.
Unlike Urlacher, who was able to slide into a conventional role that allowed his genius to shine, Thompson has yet to find a full opportunity in the professional ranks. Neither a corner nor a conventional safety and born without elite athleticism, Thompson went undrafted following the 2020 season.
Picked up as a free agent by Buffalo, numerous reports had Thompson as one of the rookie standouts in minicamp and training camp. He recorded three tackles, one solo and two assists, in limited action in the Bills’ first two preseason games. Only three days after Buffalo’s 41-15 dismantling of the Chicago Bears, the SDSU great was cut.
“It was great just learning from the coaches,” Thompson said of his time in Buffalo. “The coaches gave me a great me a great opportunity. … I felt like I competed well, had great practices. In the preseason games, I didn’t get too many reps. I learned a lot from it. It made me a better person, a better man learning from those guys. It was an honor, something that you cherish, hope to get back to, and believe I will, eventually.”
Though promised to be resigned at a later date, the Bills never picked him up again. It was the first time in his football life that he faced adversity. This past year not only made him a better man, it also made him a better player. Thompson’s greatest attribute on and off the field is his penchant for learning. The past year has taught him a lot, including how to succeed if given another chance in professional football.
“Currently, I’m just trying to play whatever, USFL, CFL, NFL,” Thompson explained. “I’m just trying to get some film. Show that I can play. Show that I have learned and developed from my last year in college. It’s almost been a year out from me not playing football. I’ve learned a lot about myself and got my body in better shape. Working on my speed, change of direction, strength, mobility, flexibility, all these things to make me a better player and a better athlete. Just trying to show it out, that’s the goal, and that’s the point.”
While he waits for that next chance to prove his football genius translates to the pro game, he continues to put into practice the values he learned as a student-athlete at SDSU. One of the phrases used to summarize what it means to be an Aztec is “Blood in-Blood out.” When someone chooses to attend SDSU, they join a brotherhood that continues long after their playing days are done.
“It means a lot,” Thompson replied when asked what the phrase means to the players and program. “That’s the standard we live by. Put our blood, sweat, and tears into every day, into every workout and meeting. Just knowing you’re giving the best version of yourself. Believing in one goal and helping your team win. That’s what coach Hall, coach Hoke, and all the coaching staff, they believed that and poured into us. We just had to go out and execute. That’s what the guys are doing now. They had a great season last year, and I’m hoping they can build on it and finally get the job done.”
Putting that ideal into practice, Thompson was on the sidelines supporting and cheering on his former teammates at the SDSU Pro Day last week. In conversation, Thompson sounds like a seasoned coach and not a young man just out of college. His willingness to help, his ability to inspire, and his clarity in making complex ideas accessible are qualities he shares with the best mentors. While Thompson did not mention coaching as a future goal, some see that for him down the road.
“That’s my brother for life,” Johnson said, echoing the “Blood In-Blood Out” mantra. “He’s a hard-working, San Diego native who loves the game of football. If he doesn’t get another shot, look for him being the next Nick Saban.”
Thompson needs a scout, a GM, a team that can look past metrics and see one of the most productive players in SDSU history. If given a chance to compete, it may not look the way it was drawn up on paper, but Thompson will do what he has always done; make plays. Any team he joins will be better on day one because of everything he brings to the table. If he is assigned to a Practice Squad, his intelligence, drive, and versatility will make his teammates better prepared for that week’s game. Thompson’s character will make any locker room he joins stronger.
With his legacy at SDSU secured as an innovator at the safety position, Thompson, like all San Diegans, looks forward to supporting the Aztecs at SnapDragon Stadium. With a little luck, he will have to wait a few years before his weekends are free to begin taking in games at SDSU’s new home.