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When you've covered spring football practices for 17 straight years, you learn how to pick out a player fairly quick.

It's not from the jersey number (as those mysteriously switch practice to practice sometimes). It's usually one sudden move that differentiates the person from someone else.

It's the extra gear, the extra effort, the higher leap, or anything in the category of, "Wow!"

This year there's a number of those players in and around that category. Some have been here, some are recent or new, If you want a couple that weren't on the practice field a year ago, I give you Travis Kelce (TE) and incoming receiver Shaq Washington (former high school quarterback).

The two I've selected both practiced a year ago, but only one played.

A difference-maker on offense for this year's 'Cats will be receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. On defense, it's a guy many of us have been "chatting up" for years in lineman Walter Stewart.

Starting with Thompkins, he's the kid who transferred from Tennessee after their VOLuminous issues in the football program. A year ago, it was believed the Bearcats could have had starting wide-outs that transferred from storied programs, USC (Hazelton) and ex-"Rocky Topper" Thompkins.

As it was, UC fans saw a total of one game from Hazelton of that tandem (the Fresno State loss where he tore his ACL).

That's why the Bearcat staff is trying to be extra careful with this year's prized receiving jewel Thompkins.

"The big thing for him is him taking care of his body and being healthy through a 13-game season," coach Butch Jones said.

That said, as much as the coach would like to "play it down", the anticipation and excitement surrounding "KT" has many looking forward to seeing No. 2 run for "six".

"I think both of us are," Jones said. "He's a young man that's paid his dues. Now, there's light at the end of the tunnel. Now, it's for real. Last year, it was up in the air whether he would play or not. Now, he knows he's playing."

While not knowing the offense in depth, Thompkins still turned heads last year with his knack of finding the ball and doing something with it once it was in hand. Unfortunately, even though Lane Kiffin was allowed to move from Tennessee to USC and coach right away, players that opted for the same treatment weren't.

Thompkins had to bide his time as a practice player.

"I kind of learned from the veterans," Thompkins said. "Vidal Hazelton went through the same situation, He told me the year would go by fast, be patient and my time will come."

He also learned from Hazelton how quick a season can be cut short. Though one can never guard against a quirky injury on a kick-off return (like Hazelton's) Thompkins is doing all he can to keep his valuable legs on the field.

"I just have to get in the training room, get in the ice tub," Thompkins said. "Treat my body right and hopefully, I'll have a good season."

Though college football coaches tend not to want to "show their hand", Butch Jones is well aware of what the speedy Thompkins can accomplish. He has all the tools to become a "go to" guy much like Mardy Gilyard and Armon Binns were.

"I think he's one of those individuals," Jones said after a recent practice. "Some others have to step up like DJ Woods and Travis Kelce and Adrien Robinson. OJ Woodard and Anthony McClung did some good things. And, I'm excited about Shaq Washington. He's everything right now that we thought he would be."

While all of those players Coach Jones mentioned have admirable talents and are potential big playmakers, it's Thompkins that stands out with circus catches and separation.

Separation is probably a receiver's best talent.  They separate from the defender before the catch and the good ones separate AFTER the catch.

Thompkins does both and feels he can't be caught.

"I don't think so," Thompkins said with confidence. "I just try to score every time I get the ball. Whether it's a hitch or a slant, I just try to get to the endzone as fast as I can."

In the bubble or at Nippert Stadium, Thompkins can make plays. Like a "gym rat", he's honed his skills with quarterback Zach Collaros thanks to the new facility.

"Zach and I have a good chemistry," Thompkins said. "During the winter workouts we had a great run that will hopefully roll over into the season. We would get the keys (to the Sheakley Athletic Complex) and come and get our extra workout in by ourselves sometimes."

Also getting in extra workouts for the Bearcats this past winter was Walter Stewart.

Many of us have sung the praises of Walter Stewart for some time, but this season the once-gangly kid from Teays Valley High School in Asheville, Ohio looks like a full-fledged "enforcer".

That's good as he's been moved to the defensive line full time.  No more "hybrid", no more linebacker. Much like other Bearcats that came in with a similar build and went on to the NFL (Andre Frazier, Antwan Peek) Stewart looks like a "Combine" athlete.

"Coach (Dave) Lawson's had us in there moving the weight around," Stewart said. "I had to get my weight up".

That weight a few years ago was maybe 190.  That was some 60 pounds and four years ago.

"I could've easily been a safety when I came in," Stewart said. "I was tall and skinny. I was recruited as a D-lineman, so I knew I was going to have to gain weight regardless."

60 pounds on most of us over that span would have us looking for elastic waist pants or wearing the baggy sweats that appear so popular in Tri-State buffet lines.

There's no flab or multiple chins involved with Stewart.
walter stewart.jpeg

"I put on about 15-20 pounds this offseason to get to about 250," Stewart said. "I plan on playing around 255-260. I feel good, If anything, I feel a little more explosive because I've got a little more power behind me."

Big East quarterbacks, consider this fair warning.  No longer is Stewart the occasional pass-rusher.  As of now, he has a Bearcat GPS focused on the signal-caller across from him.

"I'm excited to be back on the defensive line full-time now," Stewart said. "It's a little bit easier to master those techniques. It's more of an every down thing and I can get in a groove."

An added extra, is Stewart gets two more years to work at this position.  Thanks to a wise redshirt choice.  Stewart will only get bigger and better as he's only a junior.

By then, you can see him as an attractive NFL option, much like the guy that was working out indoors on the day of this interview, Connor Barwin of the Houston Texans.

Fortunately, because of the rise of Bearcat football, Stewart has many brains to pick in order to reach his ultimate goal.  He already has someone he'd like to emulate in "the league". It's someone who has a similar build and has done wonders with it.

"I have a lot of favorites," Stewart said. "I like Julius Peppers just because he does more than get sacks. He's down the field tackling and getting interceptions and stuff like that."

Offensively with Thompkins and defensively with Stewart, these are guys to watch for the next couple of years.  They've done the work and now they hope to reap the rewards.

"I'm just excited to catch up in terms of development with my body," Stewart said. "I was fortunate enough to play as a sophomore, but I was still under-sized. I'm just glad I'm up to par with everyone else out there. I'm excited to see what I can do out there."

So are many faithful Bearcat fans.

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