As a defensive assistant at Louisville a few years ago, Lorenzo Ward saw firsthand what kind of player Virginia added to its football program when it picked up graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson from Mississippi State.
Thompson’s first collegiate start for the Bulldogs came as a true freshman against Louisville in the 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl. Thompson impressed Ward enough that Ward said he thinks Thompson could be an upgrade at the quarterback position for UVa, which must replace dual-threat star Bryce Perkins.
“He will be a better version of the quarterback Virginia just had,” said Ward, a former Virginia Tech assistant now working as the defensive coordinator at Chattanooga. “This kid throws the ball way better than Perkins, and I think he’s just as good an athlete as Perkins is.”
That day, starting in place of the injured Nick Fitzgerald, Thompson ran for 147 yards on 27 carries and a Mississippi State bowl record-tying three touchdowns. He also completed 11 of 20 passes for 127 yards in the 31-27 win over the Cardinals. For Ward and the Louisville staff, Thompson entered the game as a bit of a mystery, having seen his only extended action of that year in the regular-season finale against rival Ole Miss.
“He hadn’t played all season. We thought going into the game that that would be a plus for us,” said Ward, who also coached against Perkins in 2018. “But he ended up a tough, hard-nosed kid that was very athletic. He actually played really, really well against us. I remember him moving the sticks quite a few times with his legs, because he was an athletic guy that could run. He made plays for them in that ball game.”
In fact, one of those plays sticks out in the mind of his new quarterback coach, UVa’s Jason Beck.
On the Bulldogs’ first offensive play, Thompson shuffled in the pocket, then hit his tight end 10 yards down the field on a comeback route. The play ended up going for 29 yards and helped set up Mississippi State’s first touchdown of the game.
“First play and it’s right on the money,” Beck said. “He seems to have confidence and plays well on big stages.”
Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound Louisiana native, has two seasons to play for Beck at Virginia, where he will compete with sophomore Brennan Armstrong for the starting job whenever the Cavaliers hold camp.
Thompson left Mississippi State, as often is the case, after a coaching change. The Bulldogs fired Joe Moorhead and hired former Texas Tech and Washington State coach Mike Leach. Leach promptly added Stanford transfer quarterback K.J. Costello, and Thompson went looking for a new football home.
Virginia had said for months it was in the market for a transfer to either provide depth behind Armstrong or challenge him for the starting position as the successor to Perkins.
Perkins, a junior college transfer who began his career at Arizona State, led UVa to a 17-10 record the past two seasons and an Orange Bowl berth this past year.
Armstrong, who has thrown 25 passes and run for 93 yards during the past two seasons, would have been the team’s No. 1 quarterback if it had been able to hold spring practice last month. Instead, with spring ball wiped out by the spread of COVID-19, Armstrong and Thompson, who has 105 college throws under his belt, will enter the fall in a head-to-head competition for the job.
“It’s going to be competition, because Keytaon’s coming in to play,” said Beck. “Brennan’s ready. He’s confident in himself and ready to compete and to play.”
Thompson joins a growing list of recruits that Virginia has pulled from Louisiana, where special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield and senior recruiting scout Jordan Arcement have ties.
At Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans, Thompson earned Gatorade state player of the year honors after his senior season and became a four-star recruit. He amassed 10,737 yards of total offense and accounted for 149 touchdowns during his high school career.
Beck said Brumfield’s relationship with Thompson’s high school coach helped UVa move quickly to recruit Thompson when his name hit the NCAA’s transfer portal this offseason. In fact, Virginia coaches reached out before Thompson even expected to receive any calls, Beck said.
“He didn’t know it was posted in the portal,” said Beck. “He knew it was coming, obviously, but it seemed like we may have surprised him that he was already in the portal.”
Beck said Thompson and Armstrong appear to have similar styles of quarterback play, meaning the staff won’t need to craft different offenses for the players. That’s based on what they’ve seen of Thompson on video.
“You have a good idea when you’re recruiting these guys, but until you really get them here, you don’t totally know,” said Beck. “Once Keytaon gets here, things could change quickly.”