NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
Whether it was the hard Miami neighborhood of Liberty City he grew up in, or the defensive backs on the football field, undrafted New England Patriots wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has spent his life trying to separate.
And after seven arrests and three high school expulsions before the age of 19, the 6’0”, 195-pounder finally clutched his chance to do so.
He travelled west to El Camino College in 2008, where amassed 111 receptions for 1,766 yards and 14 touchdowns over two seasons of junior college competition. Then he travelled north to the University of Cincinnati, where he amassed 78 catches for 1,077 yards and four scores over two seasons of Division I competition.
He stood out. But on Sept. 29 of 2012, the then-senior did more than stand out. He put together the greatest performance of his FBS college career.
It was against the Virginia Tech Hokies.
First Quarter, 3rd-and-11: In Route
Midway through the first quarter of action, Cincinnati operated out of “11” personnel with tailback George Winn and tight end Travis Kelce on the field. Answering that, the Hokies sent out four down lineman, two linebackers and a rover.
Thompkins lined up at the “X” position and was set to run an in route. But with cornerback Antone Exum posted up 10 yards away, Thompkins had to gain ground to the “second” line of scrimmage before escaping his man.
As quarterback Munchie Legaux took the snap out of shotgun, Thompkins ran outside the numbers before planting his right foot to pivot inside. His initial straight-line run manipulated Exum.
Legaux threw his way, as Thompkins’ quick cut left Exum out of position. In turn, the wideout caught the ball in open space with his left hand over his right one. The smooth turn-key catch allowed him to stay on his feet and maneuver towards the hashes.
After making a few tacklers miss, Thompkins was finally halted. Nonetheless, the play netted a 37-yard gain and a fresh set of downs.
Thompkins’ precise footwork and vision were pivotal in making that conversion happen.
First Quarter, 3rd-and-6: Curl Route
After picking up that first down, Cincinnati’s offense found itself back in a third-down situation. Except this time, it was a more manageable 3rd-and-6.
Responding to Cincinnati’s “11” look, the Hokies were once again showing a four-man front. But with cornerback Detrick Bonner playing off as Thompkins worked from the “Z” spot, there was space to be exploited.
Thompkins ran the beginning stages of a curl route as Legaux stood in the pocket. Bonner awaited patiently.
Thompkins stopped and leaned back to the ball just as Legaux released it. At that juncture, Bonner was shielded by his own teammate.
The defense was able minimize its soft coverage, as the defensive tackle switched field to assist in making the stop. Still, that occurred after Thompkins had picked up another first down.
It wasn’t a spectacular run or catch by Thompkins; it was just an effective one.
First Quarter, 3rd-and-10: Curl Route
Late in the first quarter, the Bearcats sent trips left. Meanwhile, the Hokies sent a 3-3 alignment out to counter it.
The defense didn’t do enough to counter Thompkins, though, as he was played off by Exum.
Legaux handled the snap as Thompkins ran downfield at full speed.
Thompkins sliced his route and he veered towards the right sideline. Once he turned back to the ball, Legaux delivered an arrow.
With Exum a stride behind, Thompkins extended his arms with his palms up, hauling in the pass before falling to his side.
It was good for a gain of nine. Cincinnati needed 10.
Second Quarter, 3rd-and-12: In Route
Early in the second quarter, Cincinnati was back battling another third-down. Striving to get another first, the Bearcats put slot man Anthony McClung in motion to free up Thompkins on the right side of the field.
Generously guarded by cornerback Kyle Fuller, Thompkins bended to his left and ran an in route underneath. Legaux saw the void.
As Legaux ripped a spiral Thompkins’ way, Fuller closed in to contest the ball.
It wasn’t enough. Thompkins reached back, made a circle with his fingertips and notched his fourth grab of the tilt.
More importantly, Thompkins notched his third first down.
Third Quarter, 3rd-and-15: In Route
Thompkins was up on the line looking for the first-down marker. The problem for him and the Bearcats was that the first-down marker was 15 yards away.
Playing the pass, Virginia Tech arranged only three down lineman. For Thompkins, this meant that both Fuller and free safety Michael Cole would be watching him.
Thompkins broke off the line of scrimmage, right as Cole dropped down to shadow him.
As Cole shadowed him, he spent more time watching the passer than he did his man. Because of this, Thompkins was able to alter what looked like a fade route and merge over the middle.
When Legaux rifled him the ball, Cole and Fuller weren’t in the vicinity to stop it.
Thompkins caught the low-and-behind pass, falling to the ground in the process.
The play knocked the wind out of Thompkins and he had to leave for a couple plays. Nevertheless, he helped move the chains once again for his fourth first-down pick-up.
That speaks volumes about the amount of trust his quarterback — and his head coach Butch Jones — had in him. Steady hands. Steady route-running. Steady contributor.
Third Quarter, 1st-and-10: Post Route
Down by one in the final minutes of the third, the Bearcats were within 29 yards of a lead. On the same token, Thompkins was within 10 yards of then-freshman corner Donaldven Manning.
For the pass-catcher, it was a favorable advantage in terms of experience.
Legaux took the snap and immediately looked to Thompkins, who was running a post route.
Thompkins shifted right and dipped his shoulder as he crossed the 20-yard line. Consequently, he eclipsed Manning’s trip-up and approached the center of the field.
Legaux saw the lapse and tossed the ball Thompkins’ way. His sure-handed receiver caught the pass and marched into the end zone.
And just like that, the 7-6 ballgame was a 13-7 one.
Fourth Quarter, 1st-and-10: Fade Route
The Hokies soon answered with a field goal, which closed the gap to three points. But as the final quarter got underway, the Bearcats refused to let up offensively.
Cincinnati’s spread attack brought Virginia Tech out in a 4-2 formation with the safety in the box to cover Kelce in-line. That decision left the Hokies’ single-high safety with a lot of field to cover. And in Exum’s circumstance, it left him on an island opposite Thompkins on the 1st-and-10 play.
As Legaux handled the snap, Thompkins stutter-stepped his corner’s press, keeping his frame consolidated in a box and maintaining contact before shipping out for a fade route.
The jitter put Exum’s back to the ball, just as Thompkins drove by him. And when Legaux threw in the direction of his split end, the DB wasn’t able to see it.
The pass sailed in, Thompkins leaped high and Exum went low.
The hit didn’t derail Thompkins from making the second-level snag. He displayed body control near the sideline, he harnessed the ball, bringing it into his chest as he landed on the grass.
Another first down secured and another 15 yards to his credit, it was Thompkins’ seventh catch of the afternoon.
Cincinnati didn’t need him to tack on another.
The Bearcats ultimately defeated the Hokies by a score of 27-24, but the outcome would have been different if No. 7 wasn’t on the field. He was the go-to target; he was the game-changer.
His career-high seven catches for 134 yards and a TD validated those sentiments.
Thompkins’ triumphs over the Virginia Tech secondary put his comeback story on the map. Yet despite his efforts versus Virginia Tech and the rest of the Big East, Thompkins did not hear his name called in the 2013 NFL draft.
He did, however, hear his name called soon after by head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Thus far, the 25-year-old rookie has been making the most of his NFL opportunity. With New England’s 11-man wide receiving corps in a state of fluidity, Thompkins has seized extensive reps through organized team activities, minicamp and the beginning of training camp.
Although, with New England’s 90-man roster set to be cut to 75 men by Aug. 27 and 53 men by Aug. 31, Thompkins will have to continue to separate himself. He’ll have to continue to run clean routes. He’ll have to continue to reel in passes.
But based on all that Thompkins has freed himself from in the past — including the Virginia Tech defensive backfield — there’s reason to believe he will.