Because of the chaos, and day-to-day changes, the coronavirus pandemic has forced upon lives around the world, Skylar Thompson has a noteworthy opportunity in front of him next season: He could return for a sixth year at Kansas State.
Even before he suffered a season-ending injury that brought his 2020 campaign to a close — announced by head coach Chris Klieman on Monday — Thompson, and every other player in college football, had this chance. The NCAA, before the season began, granted a one-year waiver on eligibility, essentially making this a "free season” for every player.
Whether Thompson will take advantage of one more year in Manhattan still is up in the air.
“I have not talked to him about it at all,” Klieman said Tuesday, “so I’m not sure.”
It also wasn’t a topic Collin Klein was interested in discussing at length.
“Right now, it’s about him getting healthy and us finishing this season strong,” said Klein, the Wildcats’ quarterbacks coach. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. It’s a little ways down the road.”
Thompson himself hasn't weighed in on the matter, either. He hasn't been made available to reporters since the injury, nor has he posted anything on social media — Instagram or Twitter — in recent weeks. His last post on either platform was Sept. 26, when he posted a series of photos on his personal Instagram following the team's road win over then-No. 3 Oklahoma.
At some point, Klieman said, he’ll have a conversation with Thompson about playing one more year. It’s the same conversation he plans to have with every senior, all in the same position as Thompson.
Some talks just will occur sooner than others.
“What’s our thought? What’s the young man’s thought?” Klieman said. “Will we have concrete conversations with every senior on the team this week? No, because that’s not fair to them. Some of them need to see where they’re at degree wise. Some of them need to see where they’re at with regard to having an opportunity to play at the next level. There’s so many variables to it. How many games will we play? I know Baylor and Oklahoma State lost a game, so hopefully that will be scheduled again. We could be in the same boat. But in time, we will (have those conversations).”
Since Thompson’s successful surgery to correct an upper-body injury that occurred in the second quarter of a 31-21 win over Texas Tech on Oct. 3, Klein has spoken with him every day.
Those conversations never center around football.
“(I’m) just making sure he’s doing OK and on the road to recovery, really,” Klein said. “I can’t even put into words how much your heart breaks for what he’s gone through with the injury. I pray for him every day and talk to him pretty much every day. My heart is with him and all of our hearts are with him.”
When Klieman announced Monday that Thompson’s season was over, it showed how quickly things can change with an injury. During his weekly press conference Oct. 6, Klieman expressed optimism that Thompson would be able to take more reps at practice as the week progressed. At the time, Klieman said he believed Thompson would be able to play at TCU.
What changed in the time between Klieman’s initial optimism and when Thompson went under the knife simply was learning more about the nature of the injury.
“Throughout the week, they were trying to gain as much information, visit with doctors and have a bunch of different appointments,” Klieman said. “At the end of the week, it became evident that the most positive thing for him long term was to shut him down and have surgery.
“We’re always looking for the best interest with all the student-athletes. That was the case late in the week. We had conversations with Skylar and a couple of texts with his dad. ... It’s just something I thought needed to be done, and I think Skylar was at peace at the end of the week.”
Klieman declined to provide any timetable for Thompson’s recovery, nor clarify the exact nature of the injury. (Thompson’s right arm was in a sling when he returned from the locker room after halftime of the Texas Tech game.)
“We were off (Monday), and I haven’t really gotten a chance to visit with the doctors, other than (head football athletic trainer) Mindy (Hoffman) saying he was doing well,” Klieman said, “but I need to visit with him here this week.”
Thompson ends this season having completed 62.5% (40 of 64) of his passing attempts for 626 yards and four touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception. He also ran for 38 yards and three touchdowns on 19 rushing attempts. Those three rushing touchdowns are tied for most on the team, putting him alongside freshman phenom Deuce Vaughn.
Per Pro Football Focus, Thompson graded out as the sixth-best Power 5 quarterback in the nation through three games, and second among Big 12 signal-callers.
Klein didn’t dispute that Thompson, a Missouri native, had “gotten better” since the end of last season.
“He really had done some nice things and made some improvements over the first few weeks,” said Klein, a K-State great at quarterback. “His pocket presence this year compared to last year, and even as the season was going along this year, was really improving. He was making some throws down the field under duress and being accurate and being able to bring that post across the field and doing some great things. It obviously was a heartbreaking deal.”
Unable to provide any on-field contributions for the remainder of this season, the coaching staff wants Thompson to turn his attention to becoming a full-time mentor to Will Howard, the freshman who started at quarterback in last week's win at TCU — and is primed to be at the top of the depth chart for at least the rest of the 2020 campaign.
Klieman compared it to a similar situation he once dealt with at North Dakota State. Then-starting quarterback Carson Wentz went down with an injury. Easton Stick moved into the lineup.
"Carson was Easton’s best coach," Klieman said. "We had a really good (quarterbacks) coach in Randy Hedberg, but Carson was with him every day, helping with the game plan, helping him understand the schemes, and I challenged Skylar to do the same. I know he will with Will Howard, as well as Coach Klein."
Klieman issued that same directive to the entire roster.
"We challenged everybody on the team (and said), 'Raise your level of play. It’s never going to be and never will be about one player. It’s about everybody rising up and raising your level of play. It doesn’t matter if it’s the offensive line, defensive line or a specialist,'" Klieman said. "When you lose players, other positions have to step up.”
Dealing with the mental toll a season-ending injury can take on a player, Klieman pointed out Thompson — unfortunately — has multiple teammates he can commiserate with on the subject.
"There’s so many guys he can fall back on and talk to who have been in his shoes who had their season taken away that quickly," Klieman said. "He’s not the first or last, unfortunately. This is part of the game, but I know it will make him hungrier. It will make him appreciate — not that he hasn’t — but it will make him appreciate the game more. It makes everyone who’s in his position think, ‘Wow, this can be taken away.’ I want him to be a great example to the young players like (senior linebacker) Justin Hughes last year was. Don’t take any opportunity that you have to play for granted."
As important as he's been when healthy and able to play, perhaps the most difficult aspect to replace with Thompson out is the vocal leadership he provides for the entire team. Klieman said Thompson still is "going to be around us a bunch." His leadership will remain, much as Hughes' voice was a constant for the defense last season in a year in which he was sidelined because of an ACL injury suffered in spring 2019.
Yet Hughes last year, and Thompson now, only can do so much while wearing street clothes at practice and on gamedays.
Other players will have to fill the exceptionally large void left by Thompson.
"(Center) Noah Johnson is going to become a bigger voice. (Tight end) Briley Moore is going to become a bigger voice. (Running back) Harry Trotter and (wide receiver) Chabastin Taylor have to become bigger voices on offense," Klieman said. "Defense, we've got a lot of guys who talk. But on offense, it was usually Skylar and then some auxiliary players. Those auxiliary players I mentioned are going to have to come to the forefront.”