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May 16, 2014

Thompkins steps forward

It didn't take long for De'Andre Thompkins to assert himself as one of the leaders of Penn State's Class of 2014.

A four-star wide receiver, Thompkins not only enrolled early, he also reached out to other prospects in hope of boosting their interest in the Nittany Lions, proving himself to be a team player before even suiting up for the squad.

That doesn't come as any surprise to the people he knew growing up in North Carolina. Those who have watched the Swansboro football program during the past few years understand that he's been a team player all his life. That was never more evident than this past season, when he sacrificed his own playing time to help a teammate - running back Chris Phipps - attract more attention from college recruiters.

"I think he has a lot of potential to play Division I one day," Thompkins said. "He's a senior and a great player, and since I already had everything wrapped up, me and Coach [Tim] Laspada made sure to get him as many reps as possible this year, which kind of allowed me to take a step back and not play as big a role as I did before.

"I still got my touches, but I wanted him to get the attention he deserves, so we made sure to get Chris all the looks he could this year."

Phipps is expected to walk on at North Carolina this summer, an opportunity he wouldn't have received had Thompkins been the full-time running back.

Instead of playing in the backfield, Thompkins lined up primarily at wide receiver, totaling 968 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.

Doing his part to help others is nothing new for the Rivals250 athlete. Selflessness was a big part of his upbringing.

"My father made a lot of sacrifices for me my whole life," Thompkins said. "He's in the military and wasn't around much until I was in middle school. Not because he didn't want to be, but because he had to provide for us the best way he could, and that's been his career his whole life.

"He's taught me a lot about helping others and doing the right things. It was tough when I was younger, but as I've gotten older, I understand everything a lot better now."

At 5-foot-11, 171 pounds, Thompkins knows he needs to hit the weight room before he'll have a chance to develop into the breakout slot back that fans already envision him becoming. But if he doesn't redshirt this coming fall, he could provide a big lift to Penn State's special teams. This past season, he returned only three punts but averaged 61 yards per attempt. Even more impressive, during his junior and senior seasons, Thompkins scored on seven of his 25 total punt and kickoff returns.

"I would love to get a crack at returning the ball next year, but whatever the coaches decide, I'll be fine with," he said. "I know I'll get my opportunity at some point, and I'll be ready when I do."

The opportunity for early playing time helped spark Thompkins' interest in the Nittany Lions. Swansboro's Laspada is a Penn State fan, and while he never tried to steer Thompkins to University Park, he did make the prospect aware of the Nittany Lions' depth situation.

"It was all about Florida for me growing up. I loved the Gators, they were my dream school. They showed a lot of interest, too, but Coach Laspada has done a lot for me over the last couple of years and I always listen to what he has to say. He always made it clear that this was my decision, but he explained to me the opportunities I'll get because of the scholarship situation, and that was real important.

"Then, once I visited, man, I was just shocked with how great Penn State is. I kind of knew after my first visit that this was going to be the right fit for me. I waited a little longer, but when you add everything up, it was too good to pass up."

Following Penn State's coaching change, Thompkins actually earned that offer from his dream school. The Gators extended an offer less than 48 hours after Bill O'Brien's departure, and given the uncertainty at Penn State, he admits he was tempted.

Thompkins just happened to be in Florida for the Under Armour All-America game in late December, so he, his father and Laspada took the opportunity to visit Gainesville and tour the campus themselves. It ended up being a life-changing experience, but not in the obvious way.

"After seeing Florida, which really was my dream school my entire life, I don't know what it was, really, but that's just when it all sunk in that Penn State was truly my home. I loved everything that I saw at Florida, but Penn State is just a special place, unlike any other school I've ever known. That alone kept me from really pursuing other options."

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