Khyri Thornton never expected to redshirt his freshman year at Southern Mississippi.
The future Green Bay Packers defensive lineman felt he was ready to contribute the moment he arrived in Hattiesburg, but things didn't work out that way. He sat out, worked to get stronger and eventually became a three-year starter for the Golden Eagles.
Thornton now hopes for the same fortune in the NFL. A third-round draft pick in 2014, it was thought the 6-foot-3, 304-pounder would have no problem carving out a role on a wide-open defensive line following the departures of Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly.
Instead, Thornton spent all of training camp on the roster bubble. He was competing with undrafted rookies Mike Pennel and Luther Robinson for a reserve spot before tearing his hamstring in the Packers' preseason finale.
"I was kind of down on myself about getting hurt last year," said Thornton, who spent all of last season on injured reserve. "But at the same time, I (was) talking to my agent and talking to my financial adviser … (they were) just saying to focus on this redshirt and getting bigger, faster, stronger and knowing the playbook, and come back and be the animal that you're supposed to be."
The biggest transition to the pro game was the competition. Whereas players in the Southeastern or Big Ten conferences often square off with NFL-sized athletes, Thornton pointed to a reporter and said "in my conference (Conference USA), everybody was his size."
Thornton had to fight to get on the NFL radar because of his limited sack production and Southern Mississippi's struggles. The program won just one game his final two seasons. Still, the Packers looked past that and liked his quick-twitch tendencies and versatility.
Thornton benched 225 pounds 28 times at the NFL combine, but felt he could add more to his game in the weight room this offseason. He said he was 315 pounds during a recent weigh-in. While those additional 10 pounds are important, the key was making sure it was healthy weight.
Although he's "maybe a touch slower," Thornton believes he still moves well enough to be effective.
"To be honest with you, I'm stronger now than I've ever been in college," Thornton said. "I've squatted so much more, benched so much more, clean so much more now than I ever did in college. I don't know if it's me maturing or growing into my body, but I can tell the difference."
Size isn't everything, though. It's about striking a balance. There's no better example than Mike Daniels, the 6-foot, 305-pounder who's led the defensive line in sacks the past two seasons. Thornton learned a lot from watching Daniels and Letroy Guion, who encouraged him to "keep your head up, focus and do what you have to do to get on the field."
He'll need to show more in his second camp to get there, as the battle for a roster spot won't be any easier this year. B.J. Raji and Guion are back on one-year deals and sixth-round pick Christian Ringo was added to a rotation already consisting of Pennel, and third-year linemen Datone Jones and Josh Boyd.
That's six players Thornton will be competing with. Last year, with Mike Neal and Julius Peppers taking snaps inside in the dime subpackage, the Packers kept only five defensive linemen entering the season.
However, Thornton remains confident he'll have an opportunity to show what he can do this summer. His coaches are looking for progress.
"Khyri, it's time to take a step," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "Obviously, he had a setback last year and hopefully when these OTAs are over and training camp is over that he's able to take that step forward. We'll see if he's done that or not."
Thornton remained in Green Bay throughout his rehab and plans to stay in the area even when the offseason program wraps up in another week. He absorbed any bit of information he could. On game days, he often watched from the press box instead of the field.
The Packers are hoping Thornton finds footing after the year off. The defensive line stands as one of the team's stronger position groups going into the summer break, but Trgovac said you never can have enough able-bodied big men.
General manager Ted Thompson bet the 85th overall pick of last year's draft on Thornton, who knows what's at stake this summer.
"It's as big as it can get," Thornton said. "I have to show up and do what I've got to do. Hit the weight room hard, hit the playbook hard. I'm not going home for the break. I'm going to stay here and try and hit it because I feel like I'm lagging behind. I'm going to stay here when everybody goes home and get some extra work in so I can be on the field next year and make an impact."
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