UConn backs Newsome, Thompson recall high school rivalry
STORRS — A smile crept across Jason Thompson’s face as he glanced over his shoulder and saw his UConn teammate Arkeel Newsome finishing up another interview on media day.
Over the last four years Thompson has seen his soft-spoken teammate hold court with the media countless times and Thompson knows that Newsome has earned every bit of attention he has received. However, he admits that there was a time when the mere mention of Newsome’s name irked Thompson to no end as Newsome set nearly every rushing and touchdown scoring record in Connecticut high school football history while leading Ansonia to three straight state titles.
“In high school we always had this secret beef,” Thompson said with a laugh. “I didn’t like him because he got all the attention, but it has been great. We are good friends, we get along and help each other get better. It’s been good getting to know him and watch him play.”
The teammates attended high schools less than five miles apart. As a senior at Shelton, Thompson was not only the Gaels’ leading rusher but also the leader in receptions. Thompson also had 26 tackles and went head-to-head with some of the top offensive play makers in the talent-laden SCC. Still, when he looks back he does regret not getting to chance to lay a big shot on the record-setting Newsome when his Ansonia High squad faced the Gaels in annual preseason scrimmages.
“He never played, I always held that against him,” Thompson said. “I was a linebacker in high school and I was always looking forward to (hitting Newsome).”
Newsome couldn’t help but laugh as he revealed that he still has these conversations with Thompson.
“We talk about that, if I played what would have happened, he would have tackled me,” Newsome said.
These days they are two most experienced running backs on UConn’s roster, though they took drastically different paths.
Newsome got the ball on UConn’s fifth offensive play in his first career game. It was a much longer wait for Thompson who came to UConn as a walk-on with no scholarship offers and was given a scholarship along with fellow Connecticut natives Sean Marinan, Will Rishell and Nick Vitale in January, 2016. When he called his parents to let them know, his mother began to cry and his father pulled off the road to grasp each and every word of one unforgettable conversation. Seven months later his first career rushing attempt went for 12 yards in a loss at Houston. Nine days later came his first career start in front of the home fans at Rentschler Field.
“It was a big step forward,” Thompson said. “There are some walls that need to be broken. In practice you have to go and be the same guy every day and last year it paid off, I played in the games. There is nothing like that feeling of getting out there in the Rent in front of all of those people.”
It wasn’t the first time Thompson, a redshirt junior, carried the ball at Rentschler Field. In the 2015 spring game, he was UConn’s leading rusher with 47 yards.
“We all grew and he grew too,” Newsome said. “It’s great seeing him progress and he is still getting better. I am happy for him, I am hoping he gets his fair share (of carries).”
With redshirt freshmen Nate Hopkins and Ja’Kevious Vickers as well as true freshman Kevin Mensah pushing to get carries, it’s uncertain what Thompson’s role will be. However, there’s no doubt that Newsome will be a featured back in the UConn offense. He is already fifth in UConn history with 4,211 career all-purpose yards. He’s 305 yards shy of becoming the ninth UConn player with at least 2,000 career rushing yards and if he has 19 catches, he will be the first player who was exclusively a running back to have at least 100 career receptions.
“He can make a play when there is no play there,” Thompson said. “He is a really special player for his size. I feel like his size helps him, he hides behind linemen, you can’t see him and he is just a special player.”
UConn coach Randy Edsall has said that Newsome will not be asked to carry the ball 25-30 times a game. Already ranked third in career kickoff return yards, Newsome should still get plenty of touches.
“It has been great,” Newsome said. “There have been ups and downs but adversity is good. I think I had a great experience here, not only on the playing field but getting to know my teammates, people at school and in the classroom, I think I learned so much and I think I grew as a person.”