- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 24, 2002

More than three years of alternating hope and doubt by Derrius Thompson, his coaches and the public culminate tonight in Tampa Bay, where the Washington Redskins wide receiver will start a preseason game against the Buccaneers.
Thompson, 25, has worked himself into coach Steve Spurrier's first-string offense following a fantastic training camp and some outstanding statistics in the first three exhibitions: 16 catches, 307 yards and four touchdowns.
The athletic young wideout with prototypical size (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) finally is emerging the way two previous Redskins staffs expected. But first he had to survive three seasons of stalled advances and the doubt that accompanied them before getting a chance from the egalitarian Spurrier.
"Over the last year or so, I've grown a lot," Thompson said this week. "I expect to be out there now. My goal is to play and start and contribute."
A good performance tomorrow could win Thompson a starting job in a receivers rotation that seems to have undergone a significant transformation recently. Tonight the top three wideouts appear to be Rod Gardner, Thompson and Chris Doering, with Kevin Lockett, Jacquez Green (a starter the first two exhibitions), Reidel Anthony and Darnerien McCants fighting to show they belong among the five or six who stick on the 53-man roster.
Thompson's transformation began in earnest last season, when he rebuilt his confidence after two deflating years under coach Norv Turner and passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie. Then he had to learn this offense and grow instinctive and aggressive within it. Ultimately he has become a big, attractive target.
"When we first started putting in an offense, he was a guy who was a little rough with what we were trying to do," quarterback Danny Wuerffel said. "He didn't necessarily look as good as some of the other guys. But through minicamps and training camps, he's gotten a good feel for what's going on, and he's taken his ability and he's making it work for what's going on. It's phenomenal."
Cornerback Champ Bailey is among those eager to see how Thompson performs with and against starters. After covering Thompson in practice, Bailey believes the receiver is playing like a starter.
"I won't say he's come a long way, as far as talent, but he's definitely opening some eyes now," Bailey said. "He's always been good. Everybody's raw, but he learned from some good receivers and now it's paying off."
Thompson's potential led Turner's staff to expect big things after bringing him in as an undrafted rookie out of Baylor in 1999. Thompson spent 10 weeks on the practice squad and then was promoted to the 53-man roster but remained inactive for the rest of the season.
The staff started to grow frustrated in 2000, when Thompson seemed comfortable with the NFL lifestyle but did not improve. He reported late to a minicamp after he and fellow receiver Albert Connell missed a flight home from Cancun; although Thompson wasn't disciplined, he found it difficult to focus.
"I was already scared because I was on the bubble anyway, and it was messing with my mind," Thompson said.
He considers that year "bad times" because he bounced up and down from the practice squad and at one point had his number taken away and given to newly signed veteran Andre Reed. All the while, coaches demanded more than he was giving.
"Of course they were riding him like crazy," Bailey recalled. "But at the same time, they kept him here, so they must have known something."
Thompson didn't respond well to the pressure. He remembers being a mess by the winter of 2001, when he hooked up with Richard Mann, Marty Schottenheimer's receivers coach.
"[Mann] just looked at me and knew I was beat up mentally," Thompson said. "He could tell. He basically reassured me what I already knew, that I could play in this league, that I could be a star if I just fixed little things."
To do that, Mann used examples from previous coaching stops.
"I used to go in his office, talk to him every day," Thompson said. "He coached Webster Slaughter and all those guys back in Cleveland. He told me stories about how those guys were, how he had guys like me. He used to tell me about when he had Joe Horn in Kansas City. [Horn] never really played a lot until that one year [1999] [Mann] taught him how to do certain things, then he had a decent year, then he signed that big contract with New Orleans."
The irony was that while Schottenheimer's staff built up Thompson, it didn't take advantage of him at least on offense. On special teams Thompson became a key contributor, making eight tackles. But he finished the year with just three catches, with his snaps on offense having dwindled and finally vanished.
"I never understood why I stopped playing," Thompson said.
Shortly after Spurrier was hired in Washington, the Redskins picked up a number of former Gators at offensive skill positions: Wuerffel, Green, Anthony, Doering and Shane Matthews. Early expectations were that Spurrier would lean on his old stars, but he soon showed that he would hold open competitions and play the best players.
That opportunity, combined with the character built in the tough-love Turner era and the confidence found under Mann last year, has Thompson close to winning a starting job. Tonight he will get his most important test to date.
"I'm excited to go out there and show what I can do against a really good defense," Thompson said. "I don't think I have to go out and play extra hard or anything. I've been playing every down, so I just want to keep doing what I've been doing and catch every ball."

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