Ooltewah’s senior defensive standout Craig Thompson didn’t get a lot of work in early preseason workouts due to the lingering effects of a hamstring injury suffered during track season while running a 4x100 relay race.
At one practice, Thompson spent most of his time standing off to the side, helmet in hand, while teammates went through offensive and defensive drills.
As the 2-hour practice was coming to an end, Thompson got in a little non-contact work with his fellow defensive backs.
Thompson, a 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound was clearly frustrated by the day’s inactivity.
“I really hate missing practice,” Thompson said at the time. “I’m always asking the trainer (Randy Wilkes) if I can get out there and work some. He won’t let me.”
Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams shared his star’s exasperation over the slow recovery, but on Thursday said he expects Thompson to be in the lineup for the Owls’ season-opening game at Brainerd. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
“We’ve been a little worried about when we would get him back on the field,” said Williams, whose Owls are coming off a state playoff season in which they were stopped in the second round by eventual state champion Powell, 42-21.
Thompson will line up as the weakside outside linebacker in the Owls’ 3-4 alignment and is considered a key player for this year’s defense. In 2011, Thompson played in all 12 Ooltewah games, with starts against Cleveland and Walker Valley. He recorded 40 tackles, including 33 solo stops, one sack and recovered a fumble.
“He’s at a new position and there has been some transition connected to that,” Williams said. “Craig is in a good mental state and seems to be doing great. I think he, like everybody else, is ready to get started.
“We feel like he’s a full-go. He came out of the scrimmage OK, but we still need to take it slow with him. He’s one of the best athletes on our team and one of the most experienced players on the team, as well. You can’t replace those things very easily.”
Thompson said Thursday that coach Williams won’t have to worry about him starting against the Panthers.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “I’ve felt that way for a week or two. I felt good in our scrimmage and I’m 100 percent ready to play. I’m very happy about that.”
Brainerd is only the first step on a journey the Owls hope will take them into the postseason, but the health of Thompson is a key factor in fulfilling those aspirations.
“Craig has a dominant skill-set and we need him to be a dominant player in our defense,” Williams said. “He’s made a lot of progress, but he’s got to take that step from being a really good player to being a dominant player.”
Thompson understands what Williams wants from him this season.
“Coach wants me to dominate,” Thompson said. “He has moved me to outside linebacker. I played rover, or strong safety, my sophomore year. My junior year they moved me down to linebacker once in a while. I’ll do whatever helps the team.”
The Owls have lived with the outcome of last season’s playoff game last November and they’re ready to start another bid for the postseason. To enhance the team’s chances of extending this regular season depends, to some degree, on Thompson staying healthy.
Every Owl defender who was on that field on a cold Friday night almost a year ago remembers the struggle to keep Powell’s Dy’Shawn Mobley from running wild.
Mobley rushed for a career-best 303 yards and four touchdowns – a penalty negated a 79-yard scoring run – as the top-ranked Panthers routed the Owls, 42-21, in the Class 5A playoffs. The 6-foot, 215-pound Mobley’s effort was the second-best performance in school history, behind only the 328 yards gained by Derek Milligan against Campbell County in 2002.
“They were a good football team,” Thompson said, “and much bigger than we were. But, that was last year”
Thompson also said the Owls’ bus ride home was quiet.
“Nobody was saying anything,” he said. “They gave us some pizza when we got on the bus and I was hungry, so I ate. But I wasn’t talking much. It was a bad loss, but I think it motivated the guys that were coming back for this season.
“We’ve been working harder because we want to go farther than the second round in the playoffs this year.”
Another strong season for Thompson will strengthen his hopes to play college football, just like father (also Craig).
He is being recruited by Middle Tennessee State and has received letters of interest from Notre Dame, Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky.
“I’d like to go to Middle Tennessee and they’re talking to me hard,” Thompson said. “When my dad finished at Cleveland High School, he got a scholarship to play at Middle Tennessee. He played linebacker. My mom (Malerie) also went to Middle Tennessee.”
The elder Thompson attended Cleveland High as a freshman, transferred to Brainerd for his sophomore and junior years before returning to Cleveland and played football under coach Benny Monroe, who led the Blue Raiders to undefeated seasons and state championships in 1993-94-95. Thompson graduated from Cleveland High in 1984.
First, however, the young Thompson and Ooltewah have something more important to address – the season’s first game.
Ooltewah is going for its ninth straight season-opening victory, last losing the first game in 2003 when Red Bank pulled out a 20-18 win. Since then, first-game victories have catapulted the Owls to seven winning seasons in eight year, the lone exception coming in 2010 when they went 4-6. That season, however, the Owls still won the opener by beating Tyner, 49-36.
“It has been such a crazy preseason for our staff,” Williams said, “and my mental clock is not where it needs to be. I can’t believe the season is right here, but I’m anxious to see where this team is right now.
“My team has done all it can without playing somebody else. We don’t know what we don’t know yet. We’ve had a good week of practice and (Wednesday) was the best we’ve ever had. Our effort, energy and spirit has been really good.”
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)