Around the Big Sky

NAU DC Thompson received diverse football education at Montana

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Andy Thompson’s playing career at Montana spanned five positions and three head coaches.

His coaching career has been a little more settled.

After a season at Eastern Oregon, the former Griz linebacker found his way to Jerome Souers’ staff at Northern Arizona, where he’s now in his 14th year, including eighth as the Lumberjacks’ defensive coordinator.

Not that going to NAU completely brought an end to the hectic nature of Thompson’s career.

Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s been unique, 14 years in the same spot,” Thompson said. “I think I’ve had about every role in the program other than being the head coach, and I actually got to do that in a playoff game when I was the interim head coach. So, everything from video coordinator to graduate assistant to running back coach to linebackers and special teams to defensive coordinator. I’ve gotten a chance to really experience a lot of things down here, and it’s been great.”

Thompson’s defense was one of the biggest contributors to the chaos that was the Big Sky Conference last week, forcing five turnovers and scoring on a 30-yard fumble return by defensive tackle Jalen Goss in a 28-24 upset of Weber State. Gross earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week after NAU’s third win.

Thompson might like that description, as his teams at Northern Arizona have always been about chaos.

“Our defensive philosophy is, we want to attack,” Thompson said. “We want to be able to dictate to the offense what kind of game [it’s] going to be. So, we try to create confusion with the center by playing multiple fronts, we try to create confusion with the quarterback by playing multiple coverages. We want to try to make them as uncomfortable as possible.”

So far, that philosophy has led the Lumberjacks to be the second-best team by total defense in the Big Sky this year, behind just Weber.

NAU is also leading the conference in takeaways with 19 in just six games, a number that surely makes Thompson happy.

“Each game, our goal is always to try to get three [takeaways] and score on defense,” Thompson said. “Our kids have been doing a good job of that. I think they did a lot of preparation on what Weber State was going to do, and they found themselves in spots where the ball was coming to them, and they took advantage of it and finished plays.”

Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson in 2016/by Brooks Nuanez

Northern Arizona’s strength has been the secondary, where senior safety Kam’ron Johnson has a league-leading three interceptions and senior safety Wes Sutton, a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season, has two.

Having a stout safety pair at the back end of his defense has allowed Thompson to dial up the blitzes that he loves and has become known for.

“I think just my personality is aggressive, and so for years, we’ve probably brought as much, or some years maybe not as much, but a lot of blitzing,” Thompson said. “So, if you play us, usually you’re going to get a lot of blitzes, and people would say that’s the same [as it was when I first started].”

Thompson got his first glance into the strategic side of the game as a high school quarterback in Walla Walla, Washington.

He started out under center in 1999 when he got Montana, as well, but a number of injuries on the defensive side of the ball started him on his whirlwind tour of the depth chart.

He finished out that freshman year under Mick Dennehy as a safety who mostly played on special teams — “we had the No. 1 offense in the nation that year, so I always tell people, man, I ran down on, I think, 16 kickoffs one game against Weber State,” Thompson said.

The next year, Dennehy moved on to Utah State, Joe Glenn was in, and Thompson was back on offense, backing up John Edwards and Drew Miller at quarterback. He ended up taking a redshirt.

Edwards led the Griz to the national championship game that year as a sophomore, which left Thompson with a choice — move positions again, or be a backup for the next two years.

Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson in 2016/by Brooks Nuanez

He chose the former, and switched to outside linebacker as the Grizzlies returned to the national championship, and won it this time in 2001.

Thompson actually got to stay at outside linebacker for two years — his first time playing the same position under the same coach for two straight years — before Bobby Hauck took over the program for the first time in 2003 and moved him one more time, to inside linebacker.

He finished his career with 103 total tackles in 44 games — and a hard-earned database of football knowledge and experience.

“It really helped my career, as far as seeing how you could do things,” Thompson said. “There was a bunch of different ways those three staffs were all different. I got a bunch of different ways to try different positions and schemes to see. Definitely I think it’s helped my coaching career, because I got a chance to look at a bunch of different things at an early age.”

Thompson graduated from Montana in 2004 and started looking for a graduate assistant position to begin his coaching career, but couldn’t find anything, until a coach at Montana pointed him towards the open linebackers coach position at Eastern Oregon.

He was there for just a year before joining Souers’ staff at Northern Arizona.

Souers, one of the longest-tenured coaches in Division-I, is also well-known to University of Montana followers. He was Montana’s defensive coordinator from 1989 to 1997. His staff at NAU also includes Aaron Pflugrad, the son of former Griz head coach Robin Pflugrad, along with assistant Bruce Read, and player Cody VonAppen.

“Coach Souers, he’s very well-respected, and he’s been doing it, so for me it’s just a person to gain so much knowledge from,” Thompson said. “He’s been a defensive coordinator in this conference, he’s been a head coach. He’s worked with 18 to 22 year olds for almost 35 years, and so you can get great wisdom from listening to what he has to say.”

Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson (R) and former Montana defensive coordinator (current MSU DC) Ty Gregorak (Center) talk before a game in Bozeman in 2016/by Brooks Nuanez

With the time that he’s put in, Thompson has built up some wisdom of his own, and the memories and perspective that comes with being a coach in one place for so long.

“You stay in the same place, you get to see kids graduate, and I have all the pictures of all the linebackers that have graduated since I’ve been here,” Thompson said. “That would probably be my biggest memory, is just being able to have the guys come back after they’ve played. Some of those guys have been gone 10 years now, and they come back like, ‘Hey, coach, I really appreciate what you’ve done for me.’ That would probably be my best memory.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved. 

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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