SPARTANBURG, S.C. – All signs are pointing to this being a big year in linebacker Shaq Thompson's career arc.
Thompson himself sees the signs as well – quite literally.
"The crazy thing is I have just been seeing the number 54 everywhere. I don't know if that is a sign for me or anything like that, but I took that upon me as a sign," said Thompson, who if you didn't know or figure, wears jersey No. 54. "My whole mindset is just 'the year of 54'. I've been seeing it everywhere. I ride by a car, I see 54. I see a billboard – 54. I look at something, it says 54."
Panthers fans will be seeing a lot more of 54 on the field, at the start of the season for sure. Thompson, a first-round draft choice in 2015, increased his snap count in support of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis each of the past two seasons. This season, Davis will serve a four-game suspension out of the gates.
"I'm just going to approach it by going out there and working. It starts here," Thompson said upon arrival at training camp Wednesday. "I'm going to go out there and still compete against everybody because it is a fair game. It is not my position, it is anybody's position. It is an open market for anybody who can play that position.
"That's my whole mindset right now, and that is what I am going into camp with."
Thompson doesn't want to assume anything because he's still striving to make his mark. Most assume he'll take care over Davis' role for good when the veteran retires (Davis had said he'd retire after the 2018 season but has since backtracked).
Thompson, however, wants to match Davis' level of play before he even thinks about replacing the legendary linebacker.
"I'm still continuing to learn this game. I'm trying to get up there with Luke and TD still, performance-wise - like Luke reading the plays and stuff. I'm still trying to get up there, and that's what I need to develop in my game."
Thompson has developed his ability with a helping hand from Kuechly and Davis, likening himself to a "blind mouse" when he was a rookie in 2015 having played multiple positions on both sides of the ball at the University of Washington. Now he's in position to offer advice to the two linebackers the Panthers picked in the April draft – fifth-rounder Jermaine Carter and seventh-rounder Andre Smith.
"Don't do too much. Come here and learn," Thompson said. "Ask questions, don't be afraid, no questions are dumb. It's OK to ask vets and follow vets. I asked TD and Luke a lot of questions, and I'm still asking questions. I'm always learning this defense. The best way to learn is to ask."
It's a big season for Thompson, who is under contract through 2019 after signing the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. And it's been a big offseason for him leading up to camp.
"I got engaged. That was one big thing. I'm having another child, that's another thing," he said. "And I've just been seeing 54 everywhere."