Watch a time-lapse of the NC State Wolfpack's first practice of the preseason
The college years can be a formative time, and so it has been for N.C. State’s Shadrach Thornton.
As the Wolfpack running back goes into his senior season, he’s 10 pounds heavier and said he’s bigger and stronger. But, he said, he’s also older and wiser.
“Definitely older and wiser, baby,” Thornton said, nodding his head and smiling.
Thornton once tweeted that the “road to success is long and narrow.” That’s especially true for someone who wasn’t always on a straight path at N.C. State.
Thornton has dealt with some legal issues that took him into a Wake County courtroom. He twice was suspended by Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, his college career at N.C. State tenuously close to ending, a situation he has likened to a near-death experience.
But that’s all behind him now, Thornton said this week, cooling down after a Wolfpack practice. Asked how much he has grown while in college, he again broke into a wide smile and said, “Oh, man. A lot. I’m light years of where I was my freshman year. Things were a lot faster but now things have slowed down. I know how to carry myself on and off the field.”
Thornton has set lofty goals for the Wolfpack and for himself in what he believes can be a special season. He wants to help N.C. State contend for an ACC title while becoming a 1,000-yard rusher, even on a team packed with backs, all aching to play.
“Nothing less than a thousand yards,” Thornton said. “Bottom line, I’ve got to get it. I’ve had three years and I’ve come closer and closer. This year is the year I get it.”
I’m light years of where I was my freshman year. ... I know how to carry myself on and off the field.
N.C. State running back Shadrach Thornton
Thornton is trying to be a mentor for the younger running backs, helping them as Tony Creecy and James Washington once helped him as a freshman. He’s tried to be more vocal in preseason practices and among his teammates, looking to be more of a leader.
“He’s been great,” Doeren said Saturday. “Tremendous work ethic, great attitude, focus. He’s been really the same guy every day and I’m proud of him. He’s doing a lot of good things.”
“Shad has always played 100 miles per hour,” Wolfpack offensive coordinator Matt Canada added. “He’s the kind when the lights come on, Shad has always played hard since the day we got here.
“I think what has improved is his maturity and his understanding of the game, and the way he approaches the game and the way he takes care of himself. He’s become a very good teammate. I think he’s doing a good job leading and we’re certainly happy with the way he’s working. We don’t have that many seniors on our team, so the ones we have need to speak up, and I think he’s working at that.”
Other position coaches have noticed No. 10. They hear Thornton’s voice at practice, appreciate the effort.
“Shad comes to work every day and is very physical,” wide receivers coach George McDonald said.
Wolfpack opponents know a lot about No. 10, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound back who hammers at defenses, more bullish fury than quick-footed finesse. Thornton showed his breakaway ability last season in the big win at North Carolina, ripping off a 58-yard run to set up a touchdown, but he doesn’t mind being the head-down, straight-line tackle-breaker.
Thornton rushed for 161 yards in the 35-7 win at UNC, then 96 as the Wolfpack won the St. Petersburg Bowl over Central Florida. He finished the 2014 season with a team-high 907 yards rushing, moving him to 10th on N.C. State’s career list with 2,329 yards.
Another productive season would lift Thornton into the top four, behind only Ted Brown (4,602 yards), Joe McIntosh (3,642) and Tremayne Stephens (3,553). That would create a solid football legacy for the Hinesville, Ga., native, overshadowing some bad decisions he has made off the field.
There was the argument with his then-girlfriend in the N.C. State library in June 2013 that resulted in Thornton being charged with misdemeanor assault on a female. He received deferred prosecution and underwent counseling, and Doeren made Thornton “earn his way back” onto the team and suspended him for the first game of the 2013 season.
In December 2013, Thornton faced marijuana-related charges and again was suspended. The charge later was dismissed, but he had to earn his way back into Doeren’s good graces.
Thornton doesn’t shirk from taking responsibility for his actions. He said it’s a part of growing up, of dealing with the consequences of poor lifestyle choices and learning from his mistakes.
“I wouldn’t change anything I went through for one bit because it made me the man I am today,” Thornton said. “I’m definitely better in that aspect.”
Doeren also believes that, adding, “He’s grown up a ton.”
Doing it for his brother
Thornton can be a valuable player for the Pack. He can be the power runner but also is able to protect quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the pocket, is a capable pass-catcher and showed off his passing arm in the bowl game last year with a touchdown throw to Jaylen Samuels.
“In high school, I used to throw a lot of halfback passes,” Thornton said, laughing.
It was at Liberty County High in Hinesville that Thornton said he first decided to wear jersey No. 10. It was a number, he said, with meaning.
Thornton said he was 10 years old when his oldest brother, David Thornton, was killed. He quickly ticked off the details of that day:
“February seventh. Sunrise. It was a hit-and-run. Never found out who did it.”
David Thornton wasn’t a football player but he helped mold Shadrach into one.
“When I first told him I wanted to play football he was the first brother to take me outside and throw a football,” Thornton said. “He was like a father to me. He took time out of his day and he was throwing the football with me, running around the complex.”
And then he was gone. David Thornton was 25, Shadrach said.
“Every time I step on the field I feel like I’m taking my brother with me. I’m representing him and my family name, of course,” Thornton said.
And, now a senior, trying to stick to the straight and narrow.