Apparently it happened more than once. Cal cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson would line up against his opponent and read him before the ball was snapped.

Not his move. His lips.

"Last year, I would kind of listen to the receivers and they'd say, 'He's little,' " Thompson said Saturday, shortly after helping Cal to a 35-21 win at Minnesota. "It was like they were saying it to themselves. I could read their lips."

It's hard to imagine a time when it was possible to underestimate Thompson, now three games into his senior season. Especially after Saturday. For starters, he led the Bears with eight tackles. Not bad for a cornerback. But his contribution was as qualitative as it was quantitative.

The official play-by-play credited Thompson with four tackles on run plays. It seemed like a dozen. They all played out the same way — Minnesota sending a mountainous lineman to clear a path for a back, Thompson streaking toward the line like a guy with self-destructive tendencies, Thompson blowing up the lead blocker and taking down the ball carrier as well.

"I like being aggressive and getting into the offensive backfield," he said with a smile.

It's a top-shelf tactical maneuver, assuming you're OK with a little physical discomfort. But whatever practical gains Thompson's reckless crusades achieve, they are at least equaled by their inspirational impact.

See, those receivers had it half right. The 5-foot-9, 191-pound Thompson isn't huge. Solid, muscular and fearless, yes. But logic tells you he shouldn't be hitting like an outside linebacker with that body of his.

"They think I'm little," he said of his opponents, "but I play big."

Without thigh pads, by the way. Thompson likes "to feel quick," so he plays with practically no padding from the waist down. His short uniform pants give him about as much protection as a pair of board shorts.

He also played his standard solid pass coverage against Minnesota. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory, as usual, moved Thompson around on the field. When it comes to defensive schemery, it seems Thompson is as versatile as a suit with two coats, three pairs of slacks and a reversible vest.

"I thought he did a nice job," Gregory said. "We blitzed him off the edge a couple times and got lucky — they ran the play right at him."

Or vice versa.

Thompson, in his fourth season as a starter, is on the watch list for the Ronnie Lott and Chuck Bednarik awards. He was named to the Pac-10 preseason first team by four different publications. If any of the above has gone to his head, he does his gloating where the public can't see him.

After Saturday's game, coach Jeff Tedford spoke glowingly of his players. You could characterize this team as the final chapter in a trilogy. First came the divided, fragile 2007 team, which nearly hit No. 1 before losing six of its final eight games. Then came last year's edition, talented but young.

This squad has Old Blues dreaming those old familiar dreams. The more Tedford gushes, the more you think of Thompson's talent and temperament.

"I like this team's chemistry," Tedford said. "I like this team's leadership, I like their work ethic, I like their togetherness. I like who they are. I think it's a special group that way."

Any story of Thompson's time at Cal has to recount his first game, as a 19-year-old freshman in front of 106,000 howling fans at Tennessee. Playing with a fractured left thumb, Thompson missed tackles that resulted in Tennessee touchdowns of 45 and 80 yards. Cal fell hard that day.

Afterward Thompson met with the media. Not that a guy should be judged solely by his relationship with the press, but it was a telling vignette. He could have skipped it — it was no secret what he would be asked about. He answered every question. He never used his thumb as an excuse.

There was no telling what kind of player he might turn out to be. But he was an impressive young man that night.

"Syd will be all right," Tedford said at the time.

And so it has come to pass, if by "all right" you mean, "I wish to Pappy Waldorf I knew how we're going to replace him when he's gone."

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.