With his rookie season spent on the practice squad, Kendal Thompson has become much more comfortable at wide receiver and is optimistic that his hard work will pay off in the years to come.
There are athletes a part of NFL teams that rarely get mentioned or discussed, whose names are largely unknown by even the team's biggest fans. But in many instances, players on the practice sqad grow to be the future of organizations, or at the very least, become instrumental in helping their team grow.
It is rare for one to make it an entire season on the practice squad purely because of the potential that he shows alone. But that's exactly what wide receiver Kendal Thompson experienced, remaining on the Redskins practice squad for the entire 2016 season. He spent it learning an entirely new position than the one he had played his entire life.
After playing quarterback almost his entire collegiate career at Oklahoma and Utah, Thompson spent his first year on the professional level learning wide receiver.
"It was kind of just something that came about my last game of college," Thompson said of how the position change occurred. "We were actually kind of just messing around at practice and I was running a few routes and the head coach actually happened to catch a glimpse and it's something I had been thinking about anyways. You know he asked me if I wanted to do it, so I decided to go do it for my last game in college."
Thompson had a rollercoaster college career, beginning with a football injury at his very first practice of his sophomore season at Oklahoma. He eventually played in two games with the Sooners, before transferring to Utah with two years left of eligibility.
After failing to take over the starting job for the Utes, Thompson made that fateful decision to switch positions. But the reward took some time to materialize. Thompson was forced to wait around for many months, while teammates and other players were selected in the 2016 NFL Draft or signed immediately after as free agents. He continued to train at wide receiver as he waited for the phone to ring.
Eventually, he got the call he had been hoping for. The Redskins saw enough in his potential as an athlete despite the turbulence he faced in college and gave him the opportunity to fight for a spot on the team.
"[I] did Pro Day at Utah as a receiver. I guess that's where the [Redskins] got a look at me and they called me mid-July. Told me they were going to try me out, after the try out, ended up bringing me in for camp," Thompson said.
Getting the chance to work with the Redskins was the perfect spot for Thompson to be in after being forced to contemplate football outside the NFL with the lack of attention he was receiving from teams. Offers to play quarterback in the CFL came in, but Thompson continued hoping a team in the United States would give him a call. The Redskins were the first ones that finally did.
Take a look back at the top images of the Washington Redskins' wide receivers from the 2016 season.
"I heard from some other teams, but it was more of a quarterback mixture and things like that, but obviously nobody pulled the trigger and (the Redskins) wanted me at strictly receiver," Thompson said. "Obviously I wanted any opportunity I could get, but the whole waiting deal was pretty stressful as far as guys are going to rookie camp and OTAs and things like that and I was just sitting at home still training and trying to stay ready. You just never know when you're going to get a call. All you can do is just be ready."
Even after landing a spot on the team's practice squad, continuing to learn was a major part of the process for Thompson in his progression as a wide receiver. His background as a quarterback ended up being a major asset in learning how to perform a different role on offense. Part of that success paid off in the preseason with Thompson making quite an impression in the second game against the Jets, catching the game-winning touchdown.
"[It helps] more so when reading coverages and I know when I'm playing against zone coverage and just seeing the rotations and coverages and being on the same page with the quarterbacks. I think that makes them trust me a little more," Thompson said. "I try to constantly communicate with [the Redskins' quarterbacks], because I still have that quarterback mentality as far as I like to know what's going on with the defense and things like that, not just what my man's doing and so I think it's being a piece to the puzzle. It's been a lot easier as far as mentally, but I think physically it's a lot more demanding playing receiver. The mental side is what helps me the most."
Most NFL fans don't think about the practice squad players, a group of 10 athletes that are not a part of the active roster, but partake in practices and film study. One part of the role of a practice squad player is to emulate the challenges that the opponent will present on the field in the game to come. Getting the chance to watch film on so many other receivers was just an increased opportunity for Thompson to grow as a player. With Thompson getting the rare chance to be on the practice squad for the entire season, he was able to develop in his new role.
Playing alongside the receiving talent that the Redskins had this past season was also a way for Thompson to learn from players who have excelled in the role professionally for many years.
"I think that's when I really started learning to play the position is when I got here," Thompson said. "Guys like Pierre [Garçon], DJax and Jordan Reed, those are all guys that I kind of just watch and emulate some of, just take little pieces of what they do, you know cause obviously they have different skill sets than me, but there is also some stuff that they do that I can add and implement to my game so that's kind of what I try to do and kind of be like a sponge and just soak it all in, just learn each day."
For Thompson, his first official year is being used as a "redshirt year." A time for him to learn and master a completely new position and then hopefully reap the benefits in the seasons to come from all his hard work.
"I feel like they have trust in me as an organization and so when my number's called, it's my job as a pro to be ready as far as just knowing our plays and our system," Thompson said. "Just moving forward I'd like to contribute and that's all I can really focus on right now, whenever that time comes."