When the Nebraska running backs gathered for a team meeting on Monday, a new face was among them. Ronald Thompkins, the 4-star running back from Grayson High School in Loganville, Georgia, had joined the fold after not starting the fall on the 110-man roster.
“It’s been a long road for him back and obviously we’re going to be smart with him,” said Sean Beckton, Nebraska’s tight ends coach and primary recruiter for Georgia. “It was good to see him smile when he came into the team meeting a couple days ago. I know those guys are going to gradually work him back in but I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do for us this season.”
That “long road” included two ACL tears during high school. As a junior, Thompkins played in six games at Grayson, recording 414 rushing yards, 201 receiving yards and four touchdowns, before suffering his first knee injury.
Tompkins missed the rest of the season but was back for the start of his senior year. Grayson’s opener against Tucker was being televised on ESPN2, and Thompkins got off to a great start with five carries for 51 yards. On the fifth carry, however, he tore his ACL once again and his high school career came to an abrupt end.
The Huskers stuck with him and honored his scholarship, however, and now he’s in Lincoln and well on his way to a full recovery. Thompkins was at practice on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he got his first rep while wearing a green no-contact jersey.
“It was awesome,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “He ran his first play today in walk-through. He hadn’t run a play in what, 10, 11 months? He’s worked really hard to get his body back. I’m telling you, that guy’s got a chance to be a really good player. But we’re going to be smart with him. We don’t need to push him right now. We just want to keep getting his pitch count up to where we build him up and then we’ll see where he’s at. He’s a good teammate.
“I know he was really excited, because you come off what he’s come off, that’s a tough deal to deal with and just being able to go out there and be on the football field, be on the yard, is something that’s special, that I know he cherishes and I know he really is enjoying being out there after we activated him.”
While a handful of his fellow 2019 recruits enrolled early to get a head start, Thompkins was back at home in Georgia, going through rehab and taking care of some academic work he needed to finish to make it to Lincoln.
“I was the cheerleader from afar, that’s for sure,” Held said. “We were just trying to do everything in our power to keep him positive, focusing on school—which is No. 1—and the rehab and everything, just keeping him dialed in. Because again, he had stuff to do in the classroom, he had to get his knee right and everything so there was a lot going on when we’re not around him every day. I know he was working hard and it paid off. I know he’s glad to be here.”
Quarterback Luke McCaffrey, a fellow 2019 recruit, said Thompkins was “stoked” to be back on the football field.
“It’s awesome,” McCaffrey said. “He’s special to watch. He’s one of those guys I talked about earlier that can really make a play where it looks like there’s nothing there and he squirts out and makes a 40-yard gain or something like that. It’s special to watch. He’s an awesome player, awesome teammate.”
Beckton, who saw plenty of Thompkins on the recruiting trail, backed up McCaffrey’s assessment.
“He’s a very talented kid,” Beckton said. “He’s obviously very gifted. We’re looking forward as a staff to seeing what he can do. We always evaluate kids on film and then when they officially get here you kind of make your judgments from there. We’ll see what happens throughout the rest of training camp.”
With the likes of Maurice Washington, Dedrick Mills and another freshman in Rahmir Johnson all performing well in camp and a handful of others offering depth, the Huskers can afford to take their time with Thompkins. The four-game redshirt rule is another valuable tool the Huskers have in their arsenal if Thompkins returns to full health and is seriously pushing for playing time.
Regardless of how the running back rotation works out this season, the Huskers are excited about the future of the running back room and Thompkins is a big part of that.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.