When opposing defensive coordinators sit down to evaluate UC football they see a few obvious weapons. Zach Collaros and Isaiah Pead are blatant weapons. D.J. Woods is a cause for concern. After these pieces there is a noticeable gap in ferocity.
Kenbrell Thompkins is working hard to narrow and eventually eliminate that gap entirely.
"This offense, with the majority of the time having four or three receivers on the field we need three that can produce," said Cincinnati WR Coach T.J. Weist. "So they can't double team."
Thompkins has the physical tools and persistence to be the third elite pass catcher. We all know how he pulled in over 2,000 yards of passes in California. He also received a four-star rating from Rivals.com Yes, that was years ago but it amplifies the point. KT can be spectacular just like his predecessor Vidal Hazelton could have been.
Lost year capitalization
Though the receivers never crossed paths during games they shared a bond over the games they missed.
"When I got here going through the having to sit out situation, the whole ineligible situation it was tough for me at first," said Thompkins. "I can't even lie. It was tough for me, but Vidal (Hazelton) said he sat out last year (2009) and I saw the opportunity that he had coming into his senior year how the media was crowded around him I was living with him and there were great things going for him."
Hazelton was working with Armon Binns to assuage UC fans. Fans concerned with the impending absence of the great Mardy Gilyard. Like Thompkins, Hazelton was forced to sit out an entire year of football.
Like Hazelton, Thompkins made the best of a discouraging set of circumstances.
"My role was to be a scout team player, so that is something that I took," said Thompkins. "To be a scout team player. I made that important. I didn't go out there and mope around because I was on the scout team. It was important to me. I treated like it I was eligible. I took everything seriously as far as weight lifting, as far as running routes and everything. It was important to me and it actually helped me to this day."
Keeping a level head was tough. Internal motivation is all you have when the coaches gloss over your practice performance. Why would they care if KT caught five passes in practice. He was ineligible for another 11 months. It was hard work with zero visible reward.
Yet Thompkins worked. And worked.
As the calendar turned into 2011 KT felt the joy of relevance. His performance mattered to people. With continued hard work he could actually see the playing field and he knew it.
"The thing we keep stressing with him in consistency," said Head Coach Butch Jones.
With increased playing time Thompkins was shining for all to see. His talent was undeniable and the sky the limit.
Thompkins glistened in early April. And then injury.
Kenbrell's back hampered his progress. And then his ankle.
How can a player expect to be consistent when his body kept betraying him?
The nagging injuries persisted into the summer. While peers were conditioning and lifting heavy weights Kenbrell was struggling to feel completely healthy.
"Coming into the two a days he wasn't in good shape," said WR Coach Weist. "He was injured this summer with a multitude of injuries and just really couldn't finish out the summer. He is really starting to get into good shape, wide receiver running shape. Playing shape, which is what he has needed to stay healthy and produce for offense. It is hard to mental condition if you aren't in physical condition. For him it has been tough because he has been trying to get into that game shape."
The last two weeks Thompkins has looked crisp in his routes, extremely light on his feet, and extremely devoted to the task.
"I was kind of banged up and everything like that, but as an athlete, as a player you have to have a desire to go out there and compete everyday," said Thompkins. "There are plenty of people in college football that are banged up and still at full speed."
Helping him get quicker breaks off the ball is the weight loss. In the last five months Thompkins lost 4.5% of his overall weight. Starting at 203 in the spring KT cut down to 194.
"I am a little thinner right now so that probably makes me a little faster," said Thompkins. "Makes me look a little faster. I am still eating right and everything like that. Every time I practice I sweat. I sweat a lot. That is one thing that I do so I try to get a lot of calories in me so I maintain a weight that I need. In the spring I was 203. Came from eating Chipotle, eating a lot of food, and drinking a lot of water. Actually when we got into the season I started running a lot more so I am slimmer but I am still toned up and everything."
Coach Weist agrees that the healthy legs and back, along with the weight loss, have carved out a phenomenal offensive weapon.
"We feel like he is in game shape now," said Coach Weist. "He is putting things together. He is running sharp routes. He is finishing plays. He is able to finish practice and work hard all practice."
When Thompkins finds his place, better yet when QB Collaros finds KT in his place the Bearcats offense is going to explode. Woods' defenders get plenty of safety help over the top. This opens up the tight ends. Both Adrien Robinson and Travis Kelce caught touchdowns earlier in the season. Still a third receiver has not emerged to join Anthony McClung and Woods.
"We haven't really clicked that yet," said Coach Weist. "We had that at times last year. I think we are coming along. I like that KT has gotten himself into shape. I think we are starting to get settled into positions. But we do need three receivers to produce just so we can spread the ball around and keep the defense guessing. And have Zach (Collaros) have options."