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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah Utes linebacker Donavan Thompson (3) knocks the all away from Washington State Cougars wide receiver Kyle Sweet (17) for an incomplete pass as Utah and Washington State play a College football game at Rice Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.
At some point in the game, you’re going to face adversity. No team is just going to let us come in and run them over. —Donavan Thompson

SALT LAKE CITY — Donavan Thompson is no stranger to adversity.

The sophomore linebacker grew up in one of Miami’s toughest suburbs, had to bide his time behind one of the team’s most talented players, and relishes one of the game’s most brutal roles.

When he led the team in tackles against Washington State, which was just his second start for the Utes, it may have surprised the media and fans, but it didn’t surprise his coaches or teammates.

“He’s a monster,” said safety Chase Hansen. “He’s the type of guy who will hit everything and anything. You need guys like that on your defense. It’s the type of guy Sunia (Tauteoli) is. Donavan is very similar.”

Thompson was playing in place of the injured Tauteoli, and he said he was ready for whatever Utah needed on Saturday night. While he felt prepared for the starting role, he said the first two series when “emotions were high” were the most challenging.

“Once I was able to see what the offense was doing … I was able to make plays,” he said. “I think we took a step forward (as a defense).”

He even shrugged off the offenses seven turnovers saying he was proud that the defense was able to hold the Cougars to field goals — or nothing.

“We were just thrilled to be out there every chance we got,” he said. “I feel like our mindset is, no matter what the offense does, we gotta go out there and hold them.”

Thompson’s performance drew praise from head coach Kyle Whittingham and defensive line coach Lewis Powell.

“Donavan Thompson, we were fired up,” said Powell with a smile. “He had a good game, was another young guy who was stepping up. … He just adds another spark to that group.”

Thompson said he was drawn to Utah because of its defensive scheme and identity.

“What we pride ourselves on is physicality, being relentless to the ball,” he said. “That’s basically just me, that’s where I come from, and that’s how I played ball at home.”

He said playing Saturday night felt natural because he simply tried to do his part.

“I wasn’t trying to think about anything but just going out there and doing my job,” he said. “Just get this W the best way I can, which is just do my assignment; don’t do anything extra; don’t try to be a hero.”

Thompson, a three-time high school state champion, said Utah’s offer of a scholarship was “a dream come true.”

“(Liberty City), it’s very hard where I come from,” he said. “I’m not saying I grew up hard, but the area around me, just saying the adversity where I’m from, just coming here, I know I’m blessed to be here. That’s the way I see it.”

He said he has always felt talented enough to play, even start, for Utah, but he also respects the seniors in front of him like Tauteoli.

“I just had to be patient,” he said. “And when my times comes, just take advantage of it.”

Thompson earned 12 tackles against the Cougars, seven of those solo. Hansen said waiting for an opportunity can be difficult for players.

“It’s tough,” Hansen said. “At the same time, he’s handled it really well. He’s used it to get better. He’s learned from guys like Kavika (Luafatasaga), and it seems like it’s only prepared him more.”

Thompson capitalized the minute he got on the field.

“He’s deceptively smart,” Hansen said. “If you think of a young linebacker, you think they might not be up to speed. He does his job, and he does it full speed. … He’s one of those guys we knew about, and we knew what he was capable of doing. He’s going to have a good career.”

Thompson said that he and his teammates see what they do as rising to challenges and lately that’s been more difficult than most assumed.

“At some point in the game, you’re going to face adversity,” Thompson said. “No team is just going to let us come in and run them over. They’re not going to give us nothing. We have to be calm, be patient and when they make mistakes, we have to take advantage of them.”

Like Whittingham, he said they change very little as they try to finish the season with two more wins and earn a bowl berth for their seniors.

“At the end of the day, no matter what happens, we never stop fighting,” he said. “It’s another down to be out there. Football can be taken from you at any point. That’s why I play the way I do, and just try to contribute any way I can.”

If adversity has taught him anything, it’s to be grateful.

“It all makes you appreciate football even more,” he said. “You can’t take it for granted.”