Houston Gamblers head coach Curtis Johnson was on the phone. He was talking in his charismatic cadence — the kind a coach uses when he’s doing what so many coaches are afraid to do — stand on the stump and campaign for his guy.
"He’s an NFL back," Johnson said. "I’ll stand on the table for him in the NFL."
Johnson, a former New Orleans Saints assistant, wasn’t mentioning any of the facts that fans recognize as separating good from great, great from transformational.
Johnson didn’t mention — not once — that Thompson finished second in rush yards this season with 653 — 24 behind Wes Hills of the New Orleans Breakers — despite Thompson playing in just eight of 10 regular season games.
He didn’t mention that Thompson set the modern-era single-season USFL rushing TD record with 14.
He didn’t mention that the locomotive pulling the train of Gamblers into playoff contention in May and June was his running back, the one wearing No. 7 on his chest, or that he averaged 4.8 yards per clip.
Instead, he talked about how big Thompson is, how fast he is for his size, and that he rarely got beat in a foot race. He cut straight to the football part, the part coaches see in film and practice.
"I’ve never seen him bust a protection," Johnson told me. "He's a big back that can protect. You see, sometimes little backs that protect just get run over. We had Reggie Bush (at the Saints) and we never wanted him in protection very much because he would get run over sometimes."
That simply didn’t happen with Thompson, and it's why Johnson thinks why the big running back has a place in the NFL, saying that Thompson compares favorably with former Saints running back Latavius Murray.
"But Mark’s hands are a little bit better than Latavius’ hands," Johnson said. "I think Latavius’ maybe was a tad bit faster. But I would say Mark is a little bit more elusive. The tape is more of a downhill runner with Latavius whereas with Mark several times he got to the corner and just ran guys over just by getting to the corner."
Johnson wasn't the first person to sign the praises of Thompson to me. That would be USFL commissioner Daryl Johnston, who also saw an NFL ballplayer. Johnston was the first to tell me that Thompson was a man I should watch — in March 2022.
"I reached out to him and spoke to him directly," Johnston told me. "This is somebody who's learned from his mistakes, knows that he's missed an opportunity, and knows that the clock is running on him. I'm excited to see what Mark Thompson does with this opportunity because I think he's one of those guys that knows that there's not a lot of time left for him. And if he's going to have that opportunity to get to the NFL level, he's got to have a breakout season in the USFL. And when you watch him on film, he is fully capable of doing that."
Thompson is one of many USFL players expected to be on a call sheet for NFL training camps next month. I’m sure many of those evaluators can’t wait to see him pass protect.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.