Thornton in spotlight as Georgia braces for UT

ATHENS, Ga. — <b>Bruce Thornton</b> understands the game.<br><br> Thornton understands why South Carolina and Arkansas kept throwing his way, and he knows why he is in the spotlight in the Georgia secondary this week as the Bulldogs try to devise a way to contain Tennessee's emerging star receiver, <b>Kelley Washington</b>.

Though he is a third-year sophomore, as a cornerback Thornton is a rookie.

When opposing teams have the option of throwing at Thornton or at senior cornerback Tim Wansley, who led the Southeastern Conference in interceptions last season, the choice is fairly obvious.

"If I were an offensive coordinator, I'd throw that way, too,'' Thornton said.

Player Profile
Bruce Thornton
Position: Cornerback
Class: Sophomore (was redshirted in 1999)
High School: LaGrange
2001 highlights: Leads Georgia with five passes broken up. Also has 14 solo tackles and one fumble recovery.
One year ago, Thornton was preparing to start against Tennessee — but at running back, where he made his reputation at LaGrange High School, not cornerback.

In his only start at running back last season, Thornton had seven carries for 42 yards in a win over the Vols. Former Coach Jim Donnan moved Thornton to cornerback during practice for the Oahu Bowl, and Thornton won a starting job in spring practice this year.

Georgia coach Mark Richt resisted the temptation to shift Thornton back to offense when injuries depleted depth at running back in the spring.

Thornton was called for two pass interference calls and one defensive holding penalty as he tried to keep up with Arkansas receiver George Wilson last week. He probably saved a touchdown with one pass interference call.

"(Thornton) was wise enough to snatch (Wilson) and keep him from scoring,'' Richt said.

Wilson caught five passes for 75 yards in the game, but now Georgia awaits a bigger challenge from a bigger receiver. The 6-foot-4 Washington is coming off his breakout game against LSU. In the Vols' 26-18 win, Washington set a Tennessee record with 256 yards receiving, the third-highest total in SEC history. Washington, a freshman, caught 11 passes — each for a first down.

"You can tell (Washington) is a big-time talent,'' said Richt, who added "It's a big concern, a huge concern.''

Richt remains committed to Thornton.

"I'm not too concerned about what Bruce is doing,'' said Richt, who fielded several questions about Thornton on his weekly radio call-in show Sunday night.

"I think Bruce is on the verge of playing very well. He's been really in good position a couple of times and the throws have been outstanding. ... I'm not as concerned about him maybe as some other people are.''

A key question this week is Thornton's confidence. An experienced cornerback learns to forget bad plays, but Thornton is anything but experienced.

"I think I'm going to get some criticism,'' Thornton said. "Even people who don't know football can tell when a receiver catches the ball for a big play.''

Thornton said he has stayed away from newspapers this week and even has had to ignore some comments he overheard from other players.

Coaches say cornerbacks must live on an island, and Thornton has adapted that isolationist stance.

"I just stay focused and kind of stay by myself a lot of times,'' he said.

"You can hear comments from your teammates or other stuff. It's kind of an isolated spot, being a corner.

"You have to have the kind of mentality that you can't care what people say. I just try to stay focused and try to be a team player.''

Richt and Georgia secondary coach Willie Martinez believe Thornton is a future star at cornerback. At 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, Thornton is big enough to be a physical player at the position, and he also boasts good speed.

Richt and Martinez have stressed that Thornton consistently has been on the verge of making big stops.

"He's been in position to make plays,'' Martinez said. "It's not like he has been out of position where he's missed a call or missed a line. He's got to make plays and he will.''

Added Wansley: "I know Bruce will come on strong. Bruce is a good athlete, and I know Bruce is going to work his butt off to get better and better. I think Bruce is getting better. I think they made some bad (pass interference) calls (in the Arkansas game), but Bruce never was really out of position on the balls they did catch on him.''

Thornton said this week he hopes to be more aggressive when he is in position to make plays.

"I have to judge the ball better in the air and understand where it is at,'' he said.

"I've been in position. Now I have to take it to the next level and make the play.''

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