GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As a crowd of 84,681 descended on Jacksonville last October for cocktails and the Florida-Georgia game, Mark Thompson missed the party.
Thompson, a Gators running back, was suspended for a marijuana citation and did not make the trip with the team.
“Not being able to play in that game really hurt,” Thompson said. “It really made me realize, ‘Hey, I’m not doing the right thing. Let me step back, really re-evaluate everything I’m doing and stay on the right track.’
“I was at home watching it and that was the worst feeling to have. Putting myself in that position.”
Thompson called that week the low point of his first year at Florida, which started with high expectations when he enrolled in January of 2016. He was ranked the nation’s No. 1 junior college running back and set a goal to rush for 1,000 yards before the Georgia game.
He entered the bye week with just 262 yards.
“I would say last year did motivate me and humble me,” Thompson said. “I made some predictions, I said some things. I was saying a lot before even stepping on the field.”
His fumble issues and midseason suspension dropped him to third on the depth chart. Thompson returned to the team after the Georgia game, but he rushed for just 37 yards in the final six games as true freshman Lamical Perine emerged behind starter Jordan Scarlett.
“I had some hiccups, learning not only football but things off the field as well,” said Thompson, who was also charged with trespassing in December. “I could have had a way better first year in all aspects of being at the University of Florida.
“Off-the-field issues, just staying out of any type of newspaper article if it’s anything negative. Just positive vibes, positive things all around me and doing the right thing at all times.”
Thompson is no stranger to trials and tribulations. Academic and behavioral issues in high school forced him to go to junior college, but he came out a better player and person. He wants to evolve the same way at Florida.
“Adversity is a part of life, no matter what you’re doing,” Thompson said. “Perseverance is in my opinion the key to life. You’re always going to come across speed bumps, struggles, things that you have to get past on your journey, whatever you’re trying to do. So I look at it as a speed bump, a learning experience and mistakes that can’t be repeated.”
Thompson said he has changed many aspects of his lifestyle, including his eating and sleeping habits. He is working this spring on being a better ball carrier and lowering his pad level.
“I’ve been really happy with Mark Thompson, the way he’s going,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said Monday. “Not to say that Jordan and Lamical aren’t. Those guys are doing really good, but I think he’s taken some maturity steps.”
Thompson started off 2017 with a 85-yard touchdown catch in Florida’s bowl game. He took the momentum from that play into the offseason and hopes to have smooth sailing as a senior.
“The last game, ending my season with a bang … it was a good feeling,” Thompson said. “Not only so my coaches and teammates see that I’m really focused and really wanting to do my best, but it showed a lot of doubters and non-believers.
“You make the biggest transition from year one to year two, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m headed in the right direction. I’m not heading backward, I’m not taking any steps back. I’m very, very ready to see what’s in store for me.”