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Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Utah linebacker Donavan Thompson (3) tackles Weber State quarterback Kaden Jenks, right, during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Donavan Thompson, not to be confused with Utah Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell, plays in relative anonymity for the Utah football team.

Thompson doesn’t start regularly for the Utes and plays barely half the time, yet is a key piece for a Ute defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation in total yards allowed as well as pass defense yards and passing efficiency defense.

The 5-10, 225-pounder from Miami is overshadowed by the Ute starting linebackers, Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, who are both seniors, both captains and both locally grown (Lone Peak High and Brighton High, respectively). For that matter, Thompson has been a bit overshadowed by another Ute linebacker who’s hardly played a lick this year — BYU transfer Francis Bernard.

When Bernard joined the team in mid-August after starring for the Cougars, a lot of folks assumed that he would challenge for a starting spot and be on the field before long. However, after playing briefly in the fourth quarter of the first game against Weber State, Bernard hasn’t seen any action as Thompson keeps getting all the extra minutes at linebacker.

I wanted to get out and experience something new and I felt like Utah was the place. I like the way they play defense — it’s similar to my high school and I felt like the transition would be a lot smoother.
Donovan Thompson on why he chose to attend Utah

Thompson could be resentful of the lack of acclaim he receives, despite his stellar play, but he just shrugs it off.

“I’m not really worried about it,” he says. “I just try to make the most of the snaps I’m in. I feel like once I get on the field I make my name known.”

The Utah football team plays a 4-2-5 defensive scheme with Hansen and Barton holding down the two starting linebacker spots. They lead the team in tackles with 27 and 26, respectively and Hansen already has a Pac-12 Player of the Week honor for his play against Northern Illinois.

Defensive tackle John Penisini is third on the team with 16 tackles, but look who is right behind him in tackles with 15. It’s Thompson, who came to Utah all the way from Florida after being recruited by former Ute assistant coach Dennis Erickson.

“It’s a long way from home,” said Thompson, who was also recruited by local schools UCF and Florida International before choosing Utah. “I wanted to get out and experience something new and I felt like Utah was the place. I like the way they play defense — it’s similar to my high school and I felt like the transition would be a lot smoother.”

Courtesy University of Utah Athletics
Utah's Donavan Thompson lines up during Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2017.

In Florida, Thompson was part of three straight Florida 6A state championship teams at Miami Central High. One of his most memorable wins was during his junior season when his team defeated Hallandale High School in the second round of the playoffs. That's because the quarterback of the other team was none other than Utah’s current QB Tyler Huntley.

Thompson says he teases Huntley about it “all the time,” adding, “he always tells me how they should have won the game.”

Since coming to Utah, Thompson hasn’t redshirted and played in the majority of games as a freshman in 2016, mostly on special teams. Then last year, he played in every game and started five, after Sunia Tauteoli went out with an injury and when the Utes went with their three-linebacker set.

Holli Joyce, KSL.com
From left to right: Utah defensive players Donavan Thompson (3), Jaylon Johnson (1) and Javelin Guidry (28) on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.

He was a logical starter this year, but the Utes decided to move Hansen from safety to linebacker and Barton claimed the other starting spot. But that hasn’t kept Thompson off the field as he plays as a third linebacker when the Utes go to a 4-3-4 defensive alignment, which they started with against Washington game. He’s also ready to spell Barton or Hansen during the game when called upon.

“It depends on the other team, what formation they come out in,” Thompson said. “That determines whether I’ll be in there or not.”

Thompson especially made himself known to the Washington offense last Saturday when he came up with eight tackles. Linebacker coach Justin Ena uses the word “tough” to praise Thompson, who believes his speed is one of his best attributes.

STEVE C WILSON, Courtesy University of Utah Athletics
Utah linebacker Donavan Thompson, right, plays against Washington on Sept. 15, 2018, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I mainly like being in the middle of the field, so I can run sideline to sideline,” he says.

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Although he spells his first name differently, with an “a” in the middle, instead of an “o”, Thompson just might soon be the second-most famous Donavan/Donovan in the state behind Mitchell, if he’s not already.

When asked about the Jazz star guard, Thompson replied, “Yeah, I’ve heard of him — he’s the basketball player for the Utah Jazz” before adding, “I don’t watch too much basketball.”

Thompson said he’s never been mistaken for the other famous athlete with the same first name but doesn’t dismiss the possibility.

“Not yet,” he said with a chuckle, “not yet.”