BERKELEY — Cal cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson has repeatedly said he's actually happy his college career got off to such a nightmarish start because the learning experience could make him a better player. Apparently, observers across the country believe that hypothesis had held true.

Thompson is a 2009 preseason All-American by just about any publication that produces such recognition. This is the time of year preseason college football annuals are released, and Thompson is all over them.

Cal's fifth-year senior was named a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports and Lindy's Sports, earned second-team honors from The Sporting News and third-team recognition by Phil Steele.

"It means more to other people than me, like my friends and family," Thompson said. "I kind of just get the message."

Thompson sent a message last season, earning All-Pac-10 first-team honors after recording four interceptions and 18 pass breakups. He also was Cal's fourth-leading tackler with 70.

That type of performance seemed far, far away after his college debut at Tennessee in 2006. Thompson, thrust into the starting lineup after a season-ending knee injury to Tim Mixon, was beaten badly twice by All-American wide receiver Robert Meachem for long touchdown catches in the Volunteers' 35-18 victory. Thompson played the game with a cast because of an injured wrist.

But Thompson has shown steady improvement every year until finally establishing himself as one of the nation's top corners last season.

"I'm kind of happy my college career started off like that," he said. "It gave me that feeling of what it's like to have a poor game. All I could do is progress. It couldn't get any worse than how it started. I was able to build confidence within myself and get better."

Thompson said he isn't really interested in the preseason recognition he is earning. He appreciates the publicity, but only finds out about it when somebody else passes along the information. Predictably, he hasn't gone out to buy any of the preseason magazines.

"I wouldn't even know where to get one," he said.

The soft-spoken and thoughtful Thompson keeps a healthy perspective about the recognition. He points out they essentially are based on what he has done in the past, not a prediction of the future.

"I don't think that magazine stuff really matters," Thompson said. "It's good to get the publicity and get recognized for the success I've had and the success we're having here at Cal, but really none of that matters because it's in the past. If I go out this season and have a worse season than last season, nobody is going to remember what happened last year."

Of course, few expect that to happen. Thompson is a student of the game who is always focused on improving, so it's hard to imagine him taking a step back this season. With a year playing the new 3-4 alignment under their belt, the Bears plan on being even more diverse with their defense this season. That includes using Thompson in different ways, whether it is in man coverage, zone or the nickel.

"He's really determined to be better," defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "He's a guy that you always expected to improve. He's a smart player. Anytime you're a smart player, it gives you the opportunity to anticipate what the offense is going to do."

Contact Jonathan Okanes at jokanes@bayareanews.group.