Shadrach Thornton waited for a scholarship offer from Georgia.
Thornton grew up in Hinesville, Ga., on the eastern coast. He was a standout running back in high school at Liberty County, whose coach, Kirk Warner, played football for Georgia in the late 1980s. So it was a natural that Thornton wanted to play for the Bulldogs. Warner pushed for his star to get a scholarship, too.
“(Coach Warner) used to bring me up when he talked with their coaches, everything was sounding real good,” Thornton said. “They were going to offer me, but they said they were waiting on one running back.”
This is where history intervenes, and it’s intertwined with N.C. State and two running backs from North Carolina.
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In a trade, of sorts, Georgia landed Tarboro’s Todd Gurley – “the one running back” they were waiting on – and the Wolfpack got Thornton.
Gurley is the talk of college football after his incredible Week 1 performance against Clemson (198 rushing yards, 100-yard kickoff return, four touchdowns).
Away from the national spotlight, Thornton opened his junior season with a team-best 73 yards on 10 carries in N.C. State’s 24-23 comeback win against Georgia Southern.
Without Thornton, N.C. State probably doesn’t start 1-0 after falling behind 17-3 at the half.
But he almost never left his home state and probably wouldn’t have if his high school coach had his way.
In the class of 2012, Georgia had lined up Raleigh’s Keith Marshall, a four-star recruit from Millbrook, early in the recruiting process.
Marshall barely, if it all, considered staying home and playing for N.C. State, then coached by Tom O’Brien. But the Wolfpack and O’Brien were in on Gurley, who led Tarboro to three consecutive 2-A state titles, from the beginning until the end.
It turned out, Gurley and Marshall had decided to go to Georgia together. Thornton, who ran for 1,738 yards as a senior, committed to N.C. State – the first school to offer him – when Georgia passed.
“Gurley went there and I went here,” Thornton said. “In the long run, I made the right choice.”
Despite not playing a full slate of games in either of his first two seasons, Thornton led the Wolfpack in rushing in 2012 (694 yards in 10 games) and 2013 (768 yards in 11 games).
Thornton’s career has not been without its problems. He was suspended for the opener last year after a misdemeanor assault of a female arrest in June 2013.
Thornton received deferred prosecution in that case, which involved his ex-girlfriend, then got another legal charge, misdemeanor marijuana possession in December 2013. He was suspended indefinitely but was reinstated after the charge was dropped.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren has been steadfast in his support, and discipline, of his running back. Thornton appreciates all facets of his relationship with the second-year coach.
“I know if I was probably with any other head coach, I’m not sure I’d be here,” Thornton said. “I’m very fortunate to have a guy like (coach) Doeren to be patient with me and understand everything I went through and hear me out and stand in my corner.”
Thornton said his legal troubles are in the past, but he has learned from his mistakes. Every game, every carry since last year’s suspension has been treated like it could be the last, Thornton said.
“Losing football,” he said, “it helps you open your eyes and focus on what you’re here for.”
Thornton has had some great moments at N.C. State – a 24-yard touchdown catch in a 17-16 upset of No. 3 Florida State in 2012 still stands out, as does his 172-yard performance against the Seminoles last season – which has led to some trash-talking, senior running back Tony Creecy said.
But there’s a difference in Thornton’s approach this season, Creecy said.
“(The coaches) hound him about not talking, just be seen,” Creecy said. “He’s gotten a lot better at that, he doesn’t talk, he just plays ball.”
A quieter, yet still as confident, Thornton has focused on being more consistent. He entered the first game second on the depth chart and shared carries with Creecy and sophomore Matt Dayes.
Thornton, who has good size (6-foot-1, 212 pounds) and has the elusiveness to make the first defender miss, stood out against Georgia Southern with 7.3 yards per carry, but said he’s content with his role.
“I’m just really here to do whatever they need me to do to win,” Thornton said. “Whatever is best for us, I’m down for it.”
Doeren said he plans to continue rotating backs but added: “When you get a hot hand, you have to go with the hot hand, I think you saw that with Shad as the game went on. That’s how it works.”
In particular, Thornton wants to put together a full season, not just have great moments.
“I know in past years, my eyes were in the wrong place and I was basically just panicking and not setting my blocks,” Thornton said. “I understand the pace of the game, I’m smarter now.
“If I can just be an efficient runner, be in the right spot at all times, I can grind out some good yards.”