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Utah safety chases NFL dream at Seattle Regional Combine

RENTON, Wash. -- Jason Thompson grew up just four exits down the interstate from the Seahawks' Virginia Mason Athletic Facility.

Thompson was a high school standout at Kennedy Catholic in nearby Burien, another Seattle suburb. These days, the former Utah Ute is training for what he hopes will be a lengthy professional career at a gym two additional exits up the 405.

And yet prior to Saturday morning, Thompson had never before set foot in the Seahawks' gleaming practice facility. That's when he and a host of other NFL hopefuls participated in the league's first regional combine of 2017. The regional combines are an opportunity for draft-eligible prospects who weren't invited to the National Scouting Combine (March 3-6 on NFL Network) to work out for NFL evaluators.

"It's crazy," Thompson said. "I'm definitely happy I came to this one, to see the home team. This is cool."

Optimistic enthusiasm was something of the theme of the day. Less than a week removed from the Super Bowl, the participants are early in the process of trying to catch on with a professional team. Saturday's combine was more of a first run than a last chance.

The Seahawks have a reputation around the league as a team that takes events like these particularly seriously. They're also known for taking chances on prospects other teams might overlook, a trend not lost on the participants, whose schools were as wide-ranging as Oregon State and Catawba, from Syracuse to Lewis & Clark.

"It was humbling," said Kahlen Branning, a cornerback from the University of Regina in Canada. "It was really fun, being from a small town -- Moose Jaw, Canada -- and seeing all of the incredible athletes you have to compete against.

"You can't let all of the great athletes, this big environment get in your way. You've got to trust what you've been practicing and let it all hang loose."

Players waited anxiously in a huddle for their numbers to be called out, hoping for a one-on-one meeting with one of the scouts on hand. When a defensive back prospect leapt to snag a lofted pass at the ball's highest point, one scout murmured to himself: "This is what he has been working for."

That description aptly described Thompson, who was eager to get some official numbers posted and footage on tape.

Thompson spent two seasons at the University of Wyoming, where he was promised the opportunity to play quarterback. However, he transferred to Utah after the 2013 season and switched to playing safety, the position for which he was being evaluated on Saturday. Thompson played in 11 games this past season, mostly on special teams. His career highlight came one year earlier, when he made four tackles against rival BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

"It's mainly about changing your footwork," Thompson said of the position change, "growing up doing a three-step drop, five-step drop, rollout to having to backpedal, do a push-step, break and plant and all that.

"You kind of have a feel for what an offense is going to do."

Like Branning, Thompson focused on embracing the opportunity. Even if there remains a long way to go before opening day of training camp, the gravity of being able to work out in front of professional evaluators was not lost on the participants.

"Stay focused and don't let the moment get to us," Thompson said. "We've played football our whole lives, so just be calm and ready."

Thompson was fortunate enough to stick to a well-worn routine.

He woke up in his parents' house on Saturday morning, made himself his standard breakfast of three eggs, three pieces of turkey bacon and oatmeal. Thompson spent the previous night sleeping in the same room he did as a kid -- though the Seahawks memorabilia he used to line it with has long since been taken down.

He'd never before been inside the VMAC, but Thompson has twice been to Seahawks games at CenturyLink Field. Both times, if only for a moment, he allowed himself to visualize being one of those fortunate few to run out of that tunnel with a jersey bearing the name of his hometown.

"Honestly, growing up, everybody just wants to be on an NFL field," Thompson said. "The closer you get to the end of your college career, man, the more you don't want it to end. Hopefully, I do well during this process and get the opportunity. That's all I can ask for."

Follow Matt Pentz on Twitter @MattPentz.

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