From his earliest high school days, Juwan Thompson dreamed of attending Duke.
Thompson was a standout basketball and football player, as well as track and field athlete, at Woodward Academy in Fairburn, Ga. The three-sport athlete was never shy about his desire to become a Blue Devil.
“My freshman year of high school a lady asked me what college I planned on going to,” Thompson said. “I told her I wanted to go to Duke.”
But it was not head coach David Cutcliffe and the football program that initially caught Thompson’s attention.
“In my eyes I was really good at basketball. Others thought I was really good at basketball, and [Duke] was the school that I had watched growing up playing basketball,” Thompson said. “That was my number one school before I thought about football or playing college football. Football was just another thing I played at the end of the day.”
Thankfully for the Blue Devils, Thompson decided football was his calling and accepted a scholarship his junior year.
As a freshman, Thompson saw action in 11 games and racked up 454 all-purpose yards. He got the starting nod at tailback just once his first year in Durham, but returned 15 kickoffs and ranked eighth in the ACC in kick return average.
His sophomore year, Thompson's role increased dramatically. He started seven games and played in all 12, rushing 110 times for 457 yards and seven touchdowns. Thompson also caught 22 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. His performance earned him the program's Bob Pascal Award for Most Outstanding Offensive Back. Thompson also excelled off the gridiron, earning All-ACC Academic honors. He would again be selected to the All-ACC Academic team his junior year.
After his standout sophomore season, Thompson saw a slightly diminished role at tailback last year. Although he started every game except one, missing the Clemson matchup due to injury, Thompson only carried the ball 75 times. Fellow running backs Josh Snead and Jela Duncan added depth to the position, combining to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
Many college running backs would resent younger players taking over more of the workload, but not Thompson. Being productive and helping his team win meant more than padding his individual numbers.
"Just be a team player—do what is needed for the team to succeed," Thompson said when asked about his personal mentality. "Understand that the individual statistics will come as you continue to help the program. There are more benefits to being a winning program than to just being an individual with great stats."
Thompson's many different roles for the Blue Devils in his senior season reflect this team-first mentality. Thompson has carried the ball just 53 times through 13 games this year but has also contributed in other areas for Duke.
Almost every player on the Blue Devils' roster plays on at least one special teams unit at one time during his career. But Thompson has proven so effective working with the special teams, he saw time with the kickoff and punt coverage and return teams during his senior season.
"A lot of people don’t notice what I do out there, and that’s a part of being on special teams," Thompson said. "You notice the people with the ball scoring the points. There are a lot of things that I do and others do on special teams that contribute to the offense and defense.”
Thompson's value to the special teams units did not go unnoticed. After Duke beat N.C. State in early November, Cutcliffe announced that Thompson would be serve as the Blue Devils' honorary fifth captain for his work with the special teams.
"Juwan Thompson, has been the epitome of a special teams player not just this season but last [season] and all summer," Cutcliffe said. "I let our squad know that we are adding a fifth permanent captain, and that would be Juwan Thompson, for the area of special teams because he has earned it."
Despite maintaining his roles at running back and with the special teams, Thompson has also been used to help shore up an injury-plagued linebacker corps. Cutcliffe and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles cooked up a basic package with Thompson at linebacker, first unveiling their new scheme in Duke's upset win against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Thompson's first, and only, series came late in the second quarter. The converted linebacker recorded three tackles, helping to keep the Hokies off the scoreboard in the first half of Duke's landmark victory.
"I never really played defense in high school, a little safety here and there," Thompson said. "[Playing linebacker] had its level of difficulty. It seemed like I was a freshman again. But it also had its fun, being able to see the defense from a linebacker standpoint."
His versatility is what makes Thompson so valuable. He may only have 256 rushing yards and one touchdown during his final collegiate season, but he has also racked up 13 tackles on defense and special teams and served as an irreplaceable leader.
Thompson probably won't show up on any awards lists or the all-conference team, but anyone in the Duke football program would agree that he is a key part of the Blue Devils' success this year.
"That light will shine bright on you at some point in time, just continue to do what you do as an individual," Thompson said. "Do your role on the team, and it will help us become better than we were a year ago.”