RALEIGH — After his arrest in June on a misdemeanor assault charge, N.C. State running back Shadrach Thornton “had to earn his way back into team activities,” coach Dave Doeren said in a statement the school released in August.
It took a while for Thornton to even earn his first carry of the season.
Thornton, a sophomore who was the Wolfpack’s leading rusher a season ago, served a one-game suspension during a season-opening victory against Louisiana Tech. In the Wolfpack’s victory against Richmond, he played on special teams only.
Then came Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium, where Thornton provided one of the Wolfpack’s few offensive highlights – among the ones that counted, at least – in N.C. State’s 26-14 loss against Clemson. On his first carry since last season, he sprinted up the middle, broke through several tacklers and crossed the goal line amid a pile of defenders.
Thornton’s 21-yard touchdown run capped a seven-play, 92-yard drive, and it gave the Wolfpack a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter. It turned out to be his only carry of the game.
“Last week he put the ball on the ground,” Doeren said of Thornton’s performance on special teams against Richmond, “and that’s a no-no with me. But he was better this week, and he’ll continue to improve and work his way back into the lineup for some more reps.
“Part of the problem was we couldn’t run the ball up the middle very well.”
Thornton helped set up his own touchdown run. With N.C. State on its own 11, he caught a short pass from quarterback Pete Thomas and turned it into a 32-yard gain. That represented the first time Thornton had touched the ball on offense since last season.
The catch and run, which came on the same drive, were the only plays Thornton made all night. Yet he made the most of both opportunities.
“He’s been working really hard in practice and he showed it tonight,” Thomas said. “He can run the ball hard. I just wish we were in more situations where he can make plays for us.”
Thornton’s two plays were positive on-the-field signs for a player who faced a long road back after police in June charged him with assault on a female. The news didn’t become public until early August, but Doeren said he learned of it immediately, and disciplined Thornton at the time of his trouble.
Thornton, who hasn’t spoken with reporters since his arrest and wasn’t made available to media members on Thursday night, received deferred prosecution last month in the assault case. If he completes court-approved conflict resolution treatment, he won’t have a criminal record.
On the field, it’s clear he has plenty of work to do to reclaim the position he held before his off-the-field trouble. Thornton, who led N.C. State last season with 694 yards rushing, wasn’t even on the two-deep depth chart at running back Thursday night.
Outside of his long run and reception, he watched while Tony Creecy and Matt Dayes shared the majority of the work load in the backfield. Creecy, the fourth-year junior, gained 4 yards on six carries, and Dayes, a freshman, ran for 16 yards on six carries.
Wolfpack junior receiver Bryan Underwood made the longest run of the night – a 36-yarder that could have been more had he not stepped out of bounds. He also was ruled to have stepped out of bounds – incorrectly, a television replay suggested – on a would-be 83-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Had Underwood’s touchdown stood, it could have given the Wolfpack a 14-13 lead. As it was, though, N.C. State at the time was left with Thornton’s touchdown, which came on his first, and so far only, carry of the season.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter