Tim Laspada — DeAndre Thompkins’ high school coach at Swansboro in North Carolina — contemplated making the nine-hour drive to Beaver Stadium for Penn State’s season opener, but decided against it after looking at the weather forecast.
“I wish I would’ve went now,” Laspada said on the phone.
Instead, the Pirates coach watched his former player make history from his couch 500 miles away.
Thompkins electrified Beaver Stadium in Penn State’s 52-0 win on Saturday, returning a punt 61 yards for the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown of the new season. It was Penn State’s first punt return touchdown since Derrick Williams ran one back 63 yards against Wisconsin in 2008.
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Thompkins, a redshirt junior speedster who had Penn State’s fastest 40-yard dash as a true freshman, said he and his teammates were aware of the punt return touchdown drought.
“Throughout the whole program, that’s always been something that’s been talked about. Who’s going to break it? Who’s going to break it?” Thompkins said surrounded by reporters. “Going into this game, I knew I had a chance. ... I just wanted to break it this game.”
He showed promise early on Saturday. Akron’s first drive ended with a punt, and Thompkins slipped through a couple tacklers for a moderate, yet impressive nine-yard gain.
But on Nick Gasser’s second punt — well, really his third due to a penalty — Thompkins broke loose. The Zips ended their second series with a punt, but a running into the punter penalty led to a re-kick.
The penalty turned out to be a blessing for the Nittany Lions.
Thompkins fielded Gasser’s boot at the Penn State 39-yard line, immediately dodged a tackle by Akron linebacker John Lako and made Zips star Ulysees Gilbert look silly on a diving attempt.
With a little help from Penn State cornerback Zech McPhearson, Thompkins had the edge — and the Beaver Stadium patrons came to life. A rising roar was in-sync with the wideout burning down the Akron sideline, and the near-sellout crowd lost it when Thompkins cut upfield past Gasser at the Akron 25-yard line.
The only thing ahead of him was the end zone. In nine seconds, Thompkins avoided two tackles, toasted a punter and finished off a thrilling 61-yard touchdown return.
“It was very rewarding to me,” Penn State coach James Franklin said, “that we’ve been investing in special teams in a lot of different ways — time, resources — and to see our special teams and to see DeAndre Thompkins get a punt return for a touchdown, it’s awesome.”
Added senior tight end Mike Gesicki: “I’m happy for DeAndre. He deserves it.”
Thompkins said every time he has the ball in his hands, he believes he can go the distance. His high school coach holds the same opinion.
Although Thompkins never returned punts at Swansboro, Laspada saw him return six kickoffs for touchdowns just a few years ago. As a senior, Thompkins averaged 51 — yes, 51 — yards per kickoff return.
“He can make people miss,” Laspada added.
Thompkins was confident going into Saturday; he had reason to be. Franklin lauded Thompkins earlier in the week, saying at his Tuesday press conference that he’s got faith in the wideout, now one of the elder statesmen of the Penn State offense.
That trust paid off with a highlight reel play.
Moments after an interception on Penn State’s first offensive series, Thompkins gave the soggy Penn State fans in attendance something to cheer for.
He even got props from Williams, who was on the sidelines. “He told me he was really proud,” Thompkins said.
Between Laspada, Franklin and his teammates, he wasn’t the only one.