It's common for high school coaches to pitch their players to college recruiters. But when the high school coach has a background like Southfield Lathrup's Stephon Thompson, the superlatives carry more weight.
Thompson, who has coached several players who have made the NFL, believes his rising senior linebacker Jamal Lyles will be his next impact player at the major conference level.
"He's a no-brainer," Thompson said. "I just think whoever gets him is going to be feeling good for four years. I think he will get on the field right away and play for four years. I think he is a special kid. You can't go wrong with him."
This coming from Thompson, who coached former Michigan stars Larry Foote and Maurice Williams, and Minnesota standout linebacker Jimmy Henry while at Detroit Pershing in the 1990s. At Lathrup, he coached players such as former Wolverine Rondell Biggs and Eastern Michigan star Jason Jones, who became a second-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2008.
Thompson also coached former MSU players DeVarrio Carter (Pershing) and Joe Karaska (Lathrup). Carter and Karaska didn't stick long with the Spartans, but Thompson sees something special in Lyles.
"Jamal is a great athlete, and more importantly he has great character," Thompson said. "He is a great student-athlete and his grade point average is well into the 3s. He really cares about academics. Those qualities make him a better football player. He is smart and brings that intelligence to the field and to the film room. He breaks down film. He is very, very aggressive on the field itself and toward the game."
Schools are getting in line with scholarship offers, with May being a key evaluation and travel period for college coaches. He has offers from Iowa, Illinois, Pitt and Stanford among others.
"I'd say the entire Big Ten wants him or is going to want him," Thompson said. "Notre Dame is courting him extremely hard and will probably end up pulling the trigger soon, maybe this week."
Michigan State has been busy in evaluating Lyles.
"Michigan State has been in several times," Thompson said. "Brad Salem told me he (Jamal) is the first person he came to see. I like Brad and Mike Tressel over there at Michigan State. They are really good guys as far as I'm concerned and Mark Dantonio is the best, so they just keep working."
With the hands and leaping ability of a star basketball player, and the quicks of a track star, and the size of a major conference linebacker, Lyles was a play-making machine as a junior, last fall.
"He had about four interception returns for touchdowns," Thompson said. "As a quarterback he threw five or six touchdown passes and caught four or five touchdown passes. He is really a skilled kid. He has wonderful hands. A lot of people like him as a receiver. He's got that kind of skill.
"As a linebacker, he makes all the calls, he lines everybody up. He loves to be the center of it all on defense. I think because he is so aggressive, he wants to play that side of the ball as opposed to the offensive side. He loves to hit.
"He is a tall kid, rangy, about 6-3, 220. He is a throwback kind of player and you know who he reminds me of? Jack Lambert. He's a rangy kid. Folks try to test him and they usually don't do well when they test him because he is so explosive and his range is so good. He has great leaping ability and when they try to throw over him, he can get up and get it.
"He's 6-3, 220 in high school, runs a 4.6 40. All of those are plusses. I really hope that they (Michigan State) offer Jamal because Michigan State is a great school. You look at the kids that folks bring in; the Big Ten is Big Ten, and you need big, fast kids. You go to all of these little speedy guys, they end up in the hospital when they go to the Big Ten."
Thompson is preparing Lyles for the possibility of a lengthy recruiting process.
"He won't make a decision until after our season is over, and he takes his visit," Thompson said. "I definitely want him to take his visits and his parents want him to take his visits. You need to take some visits, unless you have a burning desire to go to one school."
Might MSU be that type of school? It's hard to know until offers start to flow. Michigan State will want to get Lyles to East Lansing for camp.
"His thought process is that we take care of home first and all of the coaches on the next level will respect that," Thompson said of Lyles. "If he can make one-day camps, with his schedule, that's great, and that's what he'll do. But if not, he'll do what he has to do first which is take care of high school responsibilities first. There will be some one-day camps around the Big Ten that he can go to, but he will not be able to go to all of them."
Thompson anticipates taking Lyles and his Lathrup team to Michigan State's 7-on-7 camp this summer.
"We like to take our kids to colleges for a lot of seven-on-sevens, so that they can experience playing against kids that they will never play during the season, and we like to tour the camps and see what the campus is like before we get back on the bus," Thompson said. "We want to take advantage of the trip and the opportunity by getting a quick tour of the school. I'm expecting that Michigan State will be one of the schools we visit."
Coach Thompson Unplugged
When speaking with a venerable high school coach such as Stephon Thompson, who has been through the recruiting process dozens of times over the last 15 or so years, and has helped develop several major conference players, it's always a treat to wind him up for some strong, educated opinions on things and let him go.
When asked what advice he is giving Lyles on the recruiting process, Thompson delivered an intriguing commentary:
"This Lathrup community is an upper echelon community where kids do value education," Thompson said. "What I've asked each one of our kids to do is think about what you want to be for the rest of your life, not just four years of football. At the very best, the top athletes in the NFL, they are going to be in the league for 13 years at the very best, and most for only three or four, if they even make it that far. Even if you are the very best and hang in the league for 13 years, you're 35 when you come out. So what are you going to do for the rest of your life? So you had better zero in on that education if someone is going to pay for it.
"My advice to kids is don't think about the school of football, because all of them are good. At some point, you can go back to any history in the Big Ten and one of those schools did extremely well. So the media is going to give you all the good. You have to figure out if you want to be a doctor, what is the best school that is going to allow you to play football and also go ahead and take the classes necessary to do so. If you want to be an educator, which program is going to allow you to chase that dream as well as your football dream. You have to figure that out because some schools won't let you do it. So my advice is if you really want to pursue something, pursue it. Don't let the school or the coaches deter you from that. Because all of them are going to get what they want out of you, you can believe that."
When asked if his words are in reference to the fact that some schools steer players away from challenging majors, Thompson said: "Correct, and I won't mention any names but I know for a fact some schools will not let you pursue certain degrees because of the demands it will have on you in playing the game, and I think that's a travesty. That drives me crazy to see that. Coaches need to do a better job of looking to see what kind of kids they are recruiting, if they can sway them like that, that is terrible."
Comp's Two Cents: When I watched Lyle's film, I was struck by how quickly he diagnosed plays, and often took perfect angles to the ball carrier. Those are signs of a guy who either has great instincts or watches a lot of film.
"It's a little bit of both," said Southfield Lathrup head coach Stephon Thompson. "He is very intuitive and instinctive in that way."
The film-watching aspect is a bit rare at the high school level, especially for a junior.
"He was very well-trained by some of the people here, like Jimmy Henry," Thompson said. "Jimmy played at Minnesota. He was our defensive coordinator and he was a linebacker also and he did a great job with him.
"He also works out consistently with Larry Foote of the Pittsburgh Steelers, so he surrounds himself with real good people, people who care about him and they have helped him and he has taken the coaching. He is receptive. He is like a sponge, he soaks it all in."
And then he dishes it out when he gets there. The film work and athleticism are one thing, but Lyles' junior film shows he has a lot of pop when he arrives, too. I would expect his major conference scholarship offers to quadruple during the summer. He is a guy who I suspect will look good in the camp environment, as he has already proved in some 7-on-7s, but I think he's at his best when the pads go on. Nice prospect.