The way Shadrach Thornton figures, the only way he can help his former N.C. State teammates is by cheering for them.
So Thornton has been back to Carter-Finley Stadium twice since he was dismissed from the program two months ago and he plans on being in the stands again on Saturday for the North Carolina game.
“It’s different but I needed it,” said Thornton, who attended the Louisville and Clemson home games. “I needed to be around the guys and to root for them. It’s the best way I know to support them.”
Saturday’s game against the Tar Heels would have been Thornton’s final home game and a chance to remember one of the best games in his college career.
In last year’s 35-7 win at UNC, Thornton ran for 161 yards and a touchdown. He matched his career-high with 28 carries, 10 more than he had in any other game last season when he led the Wolfpack with 907 rushing yards.
“I wish I could be out there,” Thornton said.
N.C. State’s running game hasn’t been the same without Thornton, who was dismissed from the program by coach Dave Doeren on Sept. 30 after Thornton was arrested after a moped accident near campus.
Thornton has been arrested three times in the past three years and had been suspended by Doeren three times before the decision was made to cut ties with the talented running back.
Thornton only played in two games this season, a 38-14 win at Old Dominion on Sept. 19 and a 63-13 win at South Alabama a week later.
The 6-1, 218-pound senior ran for 92 yards and a touchdown against ODU and 111 yards and two touchdowns against South Alabama. He added a power element to N.C. State’s running game that has mostly been missing since his dismissal.
Junior running back Matt Dayes capably replaced Thornton as the primary runner, with 865 yards in eight games, but injured his left foot against Clemson on Oct. 31 and the Wolfpack has had to play the final four regular-season games without him.
After N.C. State ran for 79 yards on 31 carries in a 34-17 loss at Florida State on Nov. 14, Doeren admitted the team missed both Thornton and Dayes.
“Anyone that loses their first and second tailbacks is going to miss their guys,” Doeren said after the FSU game. “I don’t care what team you are you are going to miss them. Those were two pretty good running backs that we didn’t have in that game and you’re going to feel that.”
N.C. State did rebound a week later against Syracuse to rush for 276 yards, the most the team has compiled since running for 330 in Thornton’s last game at South Alabama.
Thornton, who’s no longer enrolled in school, said he has tried not to run through “What if?” scenarios with where the team would be if he was still eligible.
He has thought a lot about what happened on Sept. 29 when he crashed into a pedestrian on his moped on the sidewalk of Avent Ferry Road.
“I could have left 5 minutes sooner or later,” Thornton said. “I could have avoided everything, really.”
Thornton, 22, was charged with failure to stop and render aid and failure to provide information after his moped struck Jimmie Woodard, 23, of Raleigh, on the sidewalk. Walker suffered minor injuries but needed medical attention. Thornton is due in Wake County court on Thursday for both misdemeanor charges.
The day after Thornton’s arrest, Doeren made the decision to dismiss him from the program, a decision that Thornton has learned to accept.
“It’s a business,” Thornton said. “At the end of the day, he had to what’s best for the team and that’s what he did.”
Thornton, who has been regularly working out at D1 Sports Training in Raleigh, still keeps up with some of his former teammates.
“I miss them,” Thornton said.
Senior cornerback Juston Burris said Thornton has been missed. Burris said he tries to remain positive with Thornton.
“He’s down because he feels like he let the rest of the team down,” Burris said. “We understand what happened and we understand what coach Doeren had to do.”
As a team, N.C. State ran for 388 yards in last year’s win over North Carolina. In two games this year, the Wolfpack averaged 293 yards with Thornton (in what was a limited sample) and 169.2 without him.
Thornton was N.C. State’s leading rusher for three straight years from 2012 until ’14. It’s natural to think where the Wolfpack, 7-4 on the season, would be with Thornton in the lineup.
“Honestly, you just don’t try to do that,” Burris said. “You don’t want to think about it.”
Doeren said there’s no time for “What if?” scenarios during the season. And the way Reggie Gallaspy ran against Syracuse (13 carries, 81 yards, 1 TD) was an encouraging sign.
“Maybe at the end of the year, I’ll think about things like that but right now I’m just trying to find a way to win a game,” Doeren said before the Syracuse game.
Thornton has plenty of time to think about what went wrong. He hopes he can learn from his mistakes and that he will get a chance to play in the NFL. But on Saturday, he’ll be fan, like 50,000 other people, and he expects the same result as last year.
“I know they’ll take care of business,” Thornton said.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio