Posted: 8:00 a.m. Saturday, July 20, 2013
By Brad Shepard
Raynoch "Knock-Knock" Thompson was an elite linebacker who finished his University of Tennessee football career with All-American honors and Butkus Award finalist accolades.
Yet when everybody talks about those great Volunteers teams who culminated with a national championship in 1998, the name people settle on when talking about that great defense is Aldra "Al" Wilson, and rightfully so. Personally, Big Al is my all-time favorite Vol whose leadership was legendary and motivational speeches sometimes peeled paint off locker room walls. There's no reason why he shouldn't be considered great, and I'm sure one of us will wax poetic on him later in this very series.
But Wilson had plenty of help -- and a lot of that came from Mr. Knock-Your-Head-Off himself. Thompson -- born in Los Angeles in 1977 -- was the hard-hitting force of that defense who not-so-quietly led by his bone-crushing tackles. He was eventually a five-year NFL veteran for the Arizona Cardinals after getting picked up in the second round, but before that, Thompson played a key role in one of the greatest defensive stretches in school history.
As a three-year contributor, Thompson -- who listed his hometown as New Orleans -- was incredible. During one of the most fearsome Tennessee defenses ever [which featured Leonard Little, Wilson and Thompson] he had 67 tackles, one fumble recovery, three forced fumbles, a sack, five tackles for a loss and one interception as a sophomore. Then, during the national championship season, Knock-Knock registered a team-leading 89 tackles with two FR, two FF, two sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. In 1999, he wound up with 87 tackles a sack and seven tackles for a loss. Though he didn't have as much impact without Wilson in the corps alongside him, he was still very good.
Known for his legit speed and devastating punch he packed once he arrived angry at the ball-carrier, Thompson was a fan-favorite who consistently delivered on the football field. Of his many highlights in orange and white, one I'll never forget happened right in front of me. With the Vols locked in a tight battle with Auburn at Jordan-Hare, the Tigers were basically a couple feet from a touchdown when UT dug deep for what became one of the defining moments of the '98 championship season.
After the Vols turned Auburn away three times, Thompson delivered the drive-ending hit and tackle that stifled the Tigers and sent UT to a much-needed win. Though the Vols were clearly the best team, UT was shell-shocked when Jamal Lewis went down with a knee injury, and that goal-line stand was crucial. Shaun Ellis also had a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown that became yet another signature play of the season.
If you want to see a compilation of Thompson's violent hits, there were once some out on YouTube. They're still a sight to behold. He played the outside linebacker position the way it was meant to be played.
He also never was afraid to speak his mind to the media, stating on numerous occasions that quarterbacks were going to have a long night against the Vols. Even after his career, Thompson wasn't shy to voice his opinion.
Thompson knew Derek Dooley was wrong some 20 months ago, when he told a Knoxville radio station following the loss to Kentucky: "I understand that firing him means another step back, but this guy is never, ever going to get it done here. This is Tennessee. Tennessee! Unbelievable that this guy is our coach."
As was often the case, Knock-Knock was right on the money with his raw comments.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel named him a second-team linebacker on Tennessee's all-time team along with Keith DeLong and Jackie Walker. (Steve Kiner, Al Wilson and Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds were on the first team.)
Simply put, we were spoiled with incredible defensive players those years. John Chavis authored a unit to be proud of year-in and year-out, and there were few players more fearsome to meet on a football field. At 235 pounds and sporting 4.55 speed, Thompson would knock you in the dirt before you could say "Who's There?"
He's an all-timer.