ATHENS, Ga. — One year ago, Bruce Thornton was trying to learn on the run. In a long 2001 season, Thornton did a lot of running.
After spending his redshirt freshman season as a tailback, Thornton had to learn a new position in 2001. Thornton had to learn to play cornerback while starting beside an all-star, Tim Wansley. Most teams threw at Thornton, and that meant he had to learn how to deal with adversity, including the temporary loss of his starting job late in the season.
"You've got an All-American on one side and a rookie who just came over from running back on the other side,'' Thornton said. "With everything just thrown at me so fast, I had to learn as I went.''
It's not easy to learn hard lessons in front of 86,000 fans, especially at a position like cornerback, where mistakes are seen by everyone.
"You can be out there for 60 snaps and no one notices you and then on the next snap you get noticed in a positive or negative way,'' said Georgia secondary coach Willie Martinez. "You've got to have thick skin and a short memory. You've got to build on the positives.''
Finally, after Decory Bryant played well in a backup role against Mississippi, Bryant moved past Thornton as the starter against Georgia Tech. An injury to Wansley pushed Thornton back into the lineup against Houston and in the Music City Bowl against Boston College.
The bowl game proved to be the confidence builder that Thornton needed as a bridge to the 2002 season.
"The things I had learned during the season I tried to put to use in the bowl game, and that was one of my better games,'' Thornton said.
"It was good, a confidence boost. It sets my standards high for this year to try to make a difference.''
Now a junior, Thornton is in his second spring at cornerback. While everything was new a year ago, he now is more comfortable as he and Bryant work at the two cornerback spots with the first-team defense.
"Every day, it's getting a little better,'' Thornton said. "I'm getting adjusted to the position. It's becoming more natural.''
Added Thornton: "I'm seeing things, the whole scheme. The game is moving slower now. I'm trying to make a big play happen instead of just trying to prevent a big play.''
Coach Mark Richt says there has never been a time, either during last season or the offseason, when he thought that moving Thornton to defense was a mistake.
"I think he's going to be a great corner,'' Richt said this week. "If I didn't think that from the beginning, we wouldn't have moved him there. If I thought we made a mistake we would have moved him back to tailback because we have some concerns there.''
Added Richt: "He just has to get comfortable there. Last year was his first year. I think he's doing nothing but getting better.''
There never has been a doubt about Thornton's physical skills. At 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, he was smaller than most recent Georgia running backs, but that is good size for a cornerback and his adds excellent speed. The bigger question was building Thornton's confidence.
"He's got a positive attitude, and that's half the battle,'' Martinez said.
"He's got all the ability. It's like any position, you've got to make plays and you've got to produce. It's human nature that people start to dwell on the bad things, but I'm telling you, he did some good things last year. You've got to build on the positives.''
Another converted running back, Kenny Bailey, is working behind Thornton. Brandon Williams is playing behind Bryant, and Ryan Davis is working at both positions. Now, suddenly Thornton is the most experienced starter of the group.
"He went through growing pains just like any young corner is going to go through,'' Martinez said. "Now this is his second spring, and he feels more confident. He did a really nice job in the bowl game. There's no doubt, this is where Bruce is going to stay.''
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com