Hawaii Utah St Football

Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) catches a pass as Hawaii defensive back Kai Kaneshiro (24) defends in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Logan, Utah.

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One of the biggest turnarounds in college football this season has been orchestrated by Utah State head coach Blake Anderson and his staff.

This has been especially evident on the offensive side of the ball, where the Aggies rank first in the Mountain West and 13th nationally in total offense (473.3 yards per game). USU also currently holds down the No. 12 spot among FBS teams this season in passing offense (321.0 ypg), plus the team ranks 28th nationally in passing efficiency (152.2).

It’s a far cry — in a good way — from the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season for the Aggies, who struggled mightily offensively as they averaged 275.8 total yards per game, including only 135.83 through the air. USU only ranked above three of 128 FBS programs in total offense a year ago.

One of the biggest reasons for USU’s offensive resurgence is the development of slot receiver Deven Thompkins, who is currently atop the FBS leaderboard in receiving yardage (1,314), receiving yardage per game (146.0) and games of 100 or more receiving yards (seven). The senior has eclipsed the 100-yard barrier in each of USU’s last five games.

Thompkins was a valuable contributor for the Aggies as a sophomore and junior, as he caught 60 passes for 750 yards and five touchdowns in 16 games during that timespan. However, the native of Fort Myers, Florida, has taken his game to a different level in 2021.

“Probably the biggest thing for him is that dude’s work ethic is phenomenal,” Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “He is the hardest worker on our entire football team on every given day. He practices the exact way that he plays, almost to his detriment. I mean, you have to slow him down in practice (because) he will not. He plays every rep like it’s a game rep. It matters to him. He raises the level of our football team by doing it, and I love the success that he’s having and I love that the other guys on the team are pulling for him to have it. So, it’s the perfect storm for us. It’s the reason that we’re 7-2 is (because of) guys like that.”

Thompkins is on track to destroy the single-season school record for receiving yards, which was established by Kevin Curtis in 2021. Curtis, who caught 100 passes for 1,531 yards that year, went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL. The Aggies will compete in a minimum of 13 games this season and Thompkins will finish with 1,898 yards and a USU single-season record of 104 receptions should he stay healthy and continue as his current rate.

No. 13 already ranks 10th in the Utah State record books in career receptions (141) and career receiving yards (2,129). Thompkins is on pace to finish with 2,713 yards on 173 catches, which would put him at the No. 2 spot in receptions and No. 3 spot in receiving yardage.

Should the Aggies represent the Mountain Division in the Mountain West championship game, Thompkins might power his way to the top of the record books in career receptions — a mark of 178, held by Kevin Robinson, who played for USU from 2004-07. Kendal Smith (1985-88) is first in career receiving yards with 2,943.

Should USU advance to the MW title game, Thompkins would have a legitimate chance of become only the second player in FBS history to amass more than 2,000 yards receiving in a single season.

The former Dunbar High School star has some lofty personal goals for what is likely his final season at the collegiate level. Thompkins would have the option of returning for a super senior season in 2022.

“I definitely would love to individually win the Paul Hornung award and the Biletnikoff as well,” Thompkins said during Monday’s press conference. “Those are two of my individual goals that I do want to achieve after this year is over with.”

The Paul Hornung award is presented annually to the most versatile player at the collegiate level, while the Biletnikoff is handed out to the most outstanding collegiate receiver. The last athlete from a non-Power 5 conference to be awarded the Biletnikoff was Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards, who accumulated a whopping 1,996 yards receiving in 1998.

Ironically enough, Edwards was the third straight player from a Group of 5 conference to be presented the Biletnikoff, joining Marshall’s Randy Moss (1997) and Wyoming’s Marcus Harris (1996).

Will Thompkins end the Group of 5’s Biletnikoff drought? He will likely be considered a long shot, but USU wide receivers coach Kyle Cefalo has put two of his former athletes in a position to capture the Biletnikoff since 2018.

Perhaps Cefalo, who also serves as USU’s passing game coordinator, is the unsung hero behind Thompkins’ ultra-impressive season. The former University of Colorado receiver coached with Anderson at Arkansas State from 2013-15 and from 2017-2020.

“I think Kyle Cefalo does a phenomenal job,” Anderson said. “He’s been with me for eight years for a reason. I believe in what he does. I think the kids love the way he coaches and teaches. I think they play hard for him and our staff. Coach (Anthony) Tuck(er) and Kyle have done a phenomenal job of designing the system to get guys open.”

In his final three seasons at Arkansas State, Cefalo coached a trio of receivers who garnered first-team all-conference honors, plus two of them were selected as second-team All-Americans by the Associated Press in Jonathan Adams Jr. and Omar Bayless. Additionally, Adams Jr. was the 2020 Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year — a noteworthy accomplishment for a player from a team that went 4-7.

Adams Jr. ranked first among all FBS players in receiving yards an outing a year ago (127.2), plus he also finished third in receptions (79) and TD catches (12). Bayless shattered ASU records in receiving yards (1,653) and TD catches (17) in 2019, plus he ranked second nationally in the former category and third in the later. Both players were semifinalists for the Biletnikoff award.

Cefalo also mentored Kirk Merritt, who was a two-time first-team all-Sun Belt honoree. Merritt racked up 1,005 yards in 2018.

Indeed, Cefalo is a proven commodity as a college coach, and he was a big reason why Thompkins elected to withdraw his name from the transfer portal and be a part of the new-look Aggies in ’21. Fellow receivers Brandon Bowling, Derek Wright and Justin McGriff have also excelled under Cefalo’s tutelage this fall and are on track for 679, 677 and 451 yards, respectively.

“Coming off of last year to this year, it’s an entirely different team, an entirely new staff,” Thompkins said. “So I really just felt like ... the way spring football went, I just knew that this was a special team to be a part of, for sure. And then once the summer hit and we actually started getting into a groove with (passing drills) and things like that, I knew our offense was going to be efficient. I knew that we were going to be able to execute at a really high level and I think that coach Tucker, he definitely gets us fired up to play in this offense. You know, he schemes up great things a lot, and having coach Cefalo as a receiver coach is just amazing. It’s fun to come to work, so it makes us actually enjoy what we do, and I think that’s what’s played a big part in our success is that we have fun in everything we do.”

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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