Thornton switches to cornerback

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall and defensive back coach Nick Howell have a lot of work to do with BYU's patchwork defensive backfield. Coming into fall camp, the secondary was chockfull of talent to work with. Now just more than a week and a half into fall camp, and the coaches are making adjustments to shore up areas once considered a strength.

During special teams drills on Monday, field corner Jordan Johnson went down with an ACL injury, sidelining one of the most athletic players in BYU's secondary. Coach Howell took a look at the roster and petitioned for help. That help came in the form of walk-on slot receiver Eric Thornton, whose road to becoming a member of the team has been a difficult one.

"I actually got to BYU winter semester of 2011," said Thornton. "I tried out for the team then and I didn't make it. I then tore my ACL that school year. I didn't find out till the summer that my ACL was torn."

Thornton tore his ACL playing intramural soccer and had surgery at the end of summer.

"Six months post-surgery I tried out the next winter and I made it, but wasn't able to get cleared by the trainer, so I wasn't taken on the team because I was a walk-on."

Later, when fall camp came around in 2012, Thornton again tried out for the team but once again didn't make it.

However, he didn't give up. There was more fight in the heart of this walk-on.

"Then this last winter I tried out and finally made it and got cleared," Thornton said. "Then I played in spring and this fall."

He joined the offense, where he was practicing at the slot receiver position. Thornton began to excel at the position, and it wasn't long before many began to take notice of his speed and route-running. Fast forward to fall camp, and the twice-rejected walk-on has now switched positions following BYU's rash of injuries among the defensive backs.

"At first I was like, 'Okay, I'll give it a shot,'" Thornton said regarding the position change. "I think as I started to do it I realized how big of a task it was going to be and how difficult it was going to be. As the more I play it, the more I do, the more I get used to it. I'm feeling better each day.

"I think it forces us to really trust what we have there. I think it pushes everyone, really, to a new level, that maybe they thought they were doing good but now they have to step it up a notch. It causes those who were maybe on the bubble or not – starting or whatever – to really pick things up and say, 'Hey, I'm going to either make plays or stay where I'm at.' I think in a way it helps, but it is really tough and kind of depressing when you know you have some of your best players go down."

When Thornton was approached about switching to the other side of the ball, his response according to Coach Howell was, "Let's go!"

"That's what anybody on our team does," Coach Howell said. "You play for BYU, you know? You don't play for yourself and that's what I think anyone on our team would say. I think if you asked Cody Hoffman, he would come over. I think if you asked Kyle Van Noy to play quarterback, he would do it, so our team is very unselfish. They're really mature and this is a team game and it takes all 22 guys on the field and that's our team's mindset right now."

It's no easy task going from learning one position to instantly scrapping it for another completely different position. It takes more than just being fast and quick – although that's a good start – to play the cornerback position.

"Yup, different muscles are feeling it," said Thornton. "It's just different technique. Pretty much every sport you're running forward. It's a lot different figuring out how to backpedal, then open up correctly. Luckily, it's maybe a good thing that I didn't develop any cornerback habits earlier in my career.

"Yeah, it's interesting to see because we'd watch film and we know their responsibilities, but not everyone does something perfect on every play. So it's interesting to see what it is a defense is really trying to do on every play and all these different coverages."

BYU should get Mike Hague back in time for the season, and Coach Howell has said that Skye PoVey can also play the boundary position. BYU's secondary is also expecting Dallin Leavitt to return, though Coach Howell did mention that PoVey would be ahead of Leavitt at this point.

"Dallin just has a little muscle strain," said Coach Howell. "Just a little muscle strain. I think there was some soreness with it and just kind of a little bit of overuse. I think we'll see him back in the next five days at least, so he'll be okay. He's taking mental reps and he was out there on the field walking. His cleats were on and he was doing his assignments. I think he'll be ready to go too."

With that being the case, Robertson Daniel will move over to the field side in place of Johnson. Thornton, on the other hand, will help provide depth, but he needs to learn how to provide what's needed quickly.

"It's like cramming for a foreign language test, I would say, that I hadn't gone to class for all semester," said Thornton. "Their defensive meetings are just held differently than an offensive meeting. Their terminology is totally different, so it's taken a lot. I've started to figure out the terminology, so now I can understand what they're saying when they're speaking. Then slowly but surely I'm picking up what I'm supposed to do and what others are doing as well."

Coach Howell had similar remarks about Thornton having to learn how to play cornerback.

"It's [like] cramming for a final," said Coach Howell. "It's staying late, coming in early. It's him living off his iPad when he's away from me, all the information that I need him to see. It's so good that Danny [Sorensen] and Craig [Bills] and those guys, and Mike [Hague] and Skye [PoVey] know what they're doing really well because I have to put all my attention on [Thornton].

"You know, Mike can coach him from the sideline. Jordan [Johnson], I mean, Jordan's on crutches the last two days out here telling him. I mean, I've been super impressed with Jordan. He wants the team to win super bad too, and so all of our attention goes to that guy. All of our lights are going to be on here at the DB room till late for the next couple weeks and we're going to be ready. We're going to be ready and we're going to play great, and we're just going to get those guys ready, so I'm confident."

Thornton has had minimal experience playing cornerback in the past.

"I played a little bit in high school, but my senior year was six years ago," Thornton said. "So, I think it's good that I come in fresh and that I don't have any habits, so when I get coached up all I know is what they tell me to do, so I can develop good habits from the get-go and don't have to break bad habits. It's good in that sense."

"From what I've seen in two days, if he was playing corner and I was recruiting him, he has the things that I would look for when I recruit a guy," said Coach Howell. "I mean, his zero-to-60 speed is really fast, he's intelligent. I mean, you guys watch him block, he's aggressive and he's really smart. What I've seen so far from him, he's going to be able to pick it up, so that will provide some help for us right there."

Although the blow of losing Johnson hit the team hard, the mindset now has turned to the here and now. Coach Howell is now squarely focused on getting the players he can currently coach ready for the fight.

"When we go into that meeting room, and there's a couple of injuries and all that – those guys love Jordan. I love Jordan and he knows we have to move on, but we're going to take care of him," said Coach Howell. "Our mindset is we're getting ready for the fight. We're going to walk out there and fight. We'll be ready, I can guarantee you that."

"They're throwing me into the fire," Thornton said with a smile. "It's about trying to get in as many reps as I can."

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