A year ago, Khyri Thornton showed up to his first training camp overweight and underprepared.
The Green Bay Packers' third-round draft pick expected to bulldoze opponents like he had at every other stop in his football career. The game had always come easy to him, Thornton said. It didn't take him long to realize the NFL was different.
Thornton's rookie season was lost when a hamstring injury put him on injured reserve. Even before the injury, Thornton struggled.
"I thought too much about plays before I went out there and played," Thornton said. "I was thinking too much. I was more worried about my physical well-being than my mental well-being. I was more worried about, just all the negative stuff. I wasn't worried about football. I wasn't worried about my job here. I wasn't worried about things I should've worried about.
"But that's the past. I lived, I learned. I'm here. I'm going to make a statement this year. I'm going to make a statement every day I practice, so I can hopefully be in the rotation and play."
The Packers will have room in their defensive line rotation when the season starts. Defensive end Datone Jones was suspended for the team's opener at Chicago for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and defensive end Letroy Guion was suspended three games following a February drug arrest.
Thornton had a tackle for loss during the Family Night scrimmage Saturday, showcasing why general manger Ted Thompson spent a third-round pick on him. Still, Thornton knows the most important time to prove he's ready to contribute will be in the preseason games.
He’ll get his first opportunity Thursday when the Packers travel to the New England Patriots for their preseason opener. It’s important for Thornton – and all the Packers’ young players – to be assignment sound, but Thompson said he’s looking for raw, physical attributes as well.
“I don’t know (about) splash plays,” Thompson said, “but you’re looking for speed and the explosion, strength, power, hand use. All of the things that everybody looks for in a player, but may not have the knowledge of the call to know if he’s doing it with the right fit at the right time, if that explains it.”
The Packers were initially interested in Thornton because he blended size with natural athleticism, but his fundamentals were raw.
He didn’t need to be polished at Southern Mississippi, where he was simply too big for most opponents. In the NFL, Thornton learned, he is no longer physically imposing on a field where almost every lineman is 300 pounds.
“In college, sometimes you get to go against a guy that’s not very good,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “In this league, you don’t ever play against a guy who’s not good. I mean, some guys are going to be better than others, but everybody’s good. In college, sometimes, you can get a little bit of a fish, or someone who’s the weak link of the offensive line. You don’t get that in this league.”
Trgovac said he’s impressed with Thornton’s approach entering his second year. When he arrived at his second camp last month, Thornton was at his ideal weight of 315 pounds.
Finally in shape, he can work on the finer points of his game. Trgovac said the second-year tackle needs to improve all the nuances of playing in the trenches – his footwork, hand use, release off blocks, and reading the correct keys. Right now, Trgovac said, Thornton is shaking off the natural rust any player would have after spending a year away from football.
Thornton knows he’s competing for a job at defensive tackle. Even with extra room in the rotation, there are plenty of candidates. Josh Boyd, Christian Ringo, Mike Pennel, Bruce Gaston and Lavon Hooks make a log jam at the bottom of the depth chart. Not everyone will make the roster.
Trgovac said Thornton can’t worry about competing for a job.
“That’d be the worst thing – in my opinion – for him to think about,” Trgovac said. “I think he’s just got to think about getting better. Getting himself better individually, and things will work out. Don’t worry about, ‘I’m fighting this guy, I’m fighting that guy.’ That’s the worst thing he could do. He’s just got to keep getting better every day as a football player and worry about himself.”
Thornton has plenty of confidence, for good reason. Of the six defensive tackles competing for jobs, he’s the only one that was drafted in the first three rounds.
The natural talent is there. Thornton said he can’t wait to show it.
“You’ll see a big difference when the pads come on,” Thornton said, “and we actually get to hit somebody beside our own teammates. You’ll see a big difference. You’ll see a show.”
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