SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Shaq Thompson showed up for the start of game-planning last season at the University of Washington, he could never quite be sure whether to head to the defensive meeting room or the offensive meeting room.
"I didn't know where I was going to be in a given week – running back or linebacker?" Thompson said. "It helped me understand the game out a lot more, from both sides, but it also gave me a little bit of a headache."
Now Thompson, preparing to play linebacker in Super Bowl 50 but to play different roles within the position, is the one causing the headaches.
Much of the talk leading up to the NFC Championship game revolved around whether the Panthers secondary could possibly have any answers for Arizona's array of receivers, headed by an all-time great in Larry Fitzgerald.
Many of the answers came from Thompson, who lined up in the slot against Fitzgerald and was a big reason why he was limited to four catches for 30 yards in Carolina's 49-15 romp.
There's no telling exactly what Thompson's specific role will be against the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, but Denver's most effective receiver in the AFC Championship just happened to be tight end Owen Daniels in the slot.
"To play in front of a future Hall of Famer and take him out of the game, I thought he did a nice job," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said, looking back to Thompson's performance against Fitzgerald. "I thought he did a wonderful job, in particular for a rookie playing in his second playoff game. That in itself is a big challenge."
Thompson, the Panthers' most recent first-round draft choice, is accustomed to taking on big challenges, and part of his drive comes from having seen one of his three older brothers battle some challenges of his own.
Super Bowl Sunday will be also be the 29th birthday for Syd'Quan Thompson. If things had broken a little differently, we could be talking about a brother-versus-brother Super Bowl matchup. Drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Broncos, Syd'Quan Thompson played in 13 games as a rookie and recorded two interceptions, but the cornerback suffered a ruptured Achilles in the preseason finale the next year and never recovered enough to successfully revive his NFL career.
"He knows this game is for him," Shaq Thompson said. "The incident that happened when he tore his Achilles, it was just a tragedy. He tried to get back but just couldn't get through it.
"I tell him each and every day, 'I've got you.' Just like he did for me when I was younger, I'm doing it for him now."
Some of the most valuable advice Thompson got from his older brother upon entering the NFL was the importance of staying in his playbook, a commitment that continues to pay off richly. Some teams shied away from Thompson during the draft process because while he was clearly a superior athlete, they weren't sure if he was a linebacker, a defensive back or perhaps even a running back.
But the Panthers had a clear vision for him as a linebacker, albeit as a linebacker who could bring such a variance of skills that it still felt like he was playing multiple positons. The Panthers brought him along slowly early in the season, but they expanded his role in pass coverage late in the season by working him at nickel. And, in the week following Thomas Davis' broken arm suffered in the NFC title game, Thompson got more reps at weakside linebacker as well.
"It was difficult coming in from school and learning two or three different positions, but now it's easy," Thompson said. "There was a point in time where I was just playing one position and then A.J. (Klein) would come in, but now I'm starting to get a feel for all of them.
"I'm ready. I've got confidence in myself. I know every play and defense now."
Wide receiver Philly Brown said part of that confidence is born from Thompson's amazing athletic ability.
"He's like a safety, for real," Brown said. "He's a fast guy. He's a guy who can play in space. And he's young, so he's a guy who doesn't get tired.
"At the same time, he's a big guy who can reroute you. He can play man-to-man. When he first came in and we saw him run, we were all shocked by how he could run."
Thompson isn't shocked, of course, because that's just who he is – and the Panthers are glad for it.
"You've got to have confidence in yourself when you go out on the field," Thompson said. "If you don't have confidence, then you're going to break down and be the one who sends your team home."
View photos of the Panthers during their media session at the San Jose Convention Center.