Hugh Thornton played football in Idaho through his junior year of high school. He moved to Oberlin, Ohio, upon the passing of his mother and sister. The University of Illinois is now his third home, and he has adjusted remarkably to the trauma of the past few years.
The most athletic of the freshmen linemen, Thornton was expected to redshirt. But when duty called, he was ready.
"For me, I think it's a good thing. I was hoping to redshirt, but the team needs me. I'm definitely willing to play when I'm needed."
Speaking before the Purdue game, he admitted to some surprise at the promotion.
"I had mixed feelings. Some days I thought I was doing better than others. So I must have just stepped it up, and coaches saw that. I was in between 2nd and 3rd string, and then weeks went by and I worked up to second string. And then last week I started practicing with the ones."
With maturity beyond his years, Thornton was not overwhelmed by the opportunity.
"It felt really good to go out there and play, my first since last year. It was what I expected. I expected to be a little confused and everything, but once I got the first play out of the way it got a lot better. I felt comfortable out there."
Of course, his head was spinning.
"Definitely. I wasn't expecting this. It was out of the blue and surprised me. It's a nice opportunity, and I've got to take advantage of it."
The Sociology major actually expected to play guard at Illinois.
"When I was recruited here, I was recruited to play guard. To go back to tackle is surprising. I prefer it right now because I'm used to that."
Does he prefer the right side or left side?
"I'm good to play either position. I prefer right tackle. I feel more comfortable at this point in time. Whatever position the team needs me to play I'm willing to play. I played left side in high school, and I started out the fall at left tackle. First I moved to left guard, and then about three weeks into the season I moved to the right side."
Thornton believes he has benefitted from working at different spots along the line.
"I'm definitely learning a lot more about technique and understanding the defenses."
Tackles are on an island. They are responsible for keeping speedy defensive ends away from the quarterback. Getting accustomed to that speed has been an education.
"Those guys are pretty fast. You've just got to get adjusted and go out there and play."
The 6'-4", 285 pounder has the physicality for the task. Experience he lacks, and that is perhaps more important. He discusses what he most needs to learn.
"Just how to read the defense. Read the linebackers when they're coming over. Understand the logistics of my position."
Center Eric Block is pleased with Thornton's progress. He shared an interesting story about Thornton's evolution from rookie to starter.
"Now, he's playing well. It's funny. When freshmen come in, they think they're gonna play right away. But in camp and even in the summer, he got taken down a notch. He apologized for not being able to play this year, saying he's just not ready. But he kept chipping away, and he's ready now. He's doing a good job for us."
Illini coach Ron Zook would prefer to hold out freshmen linemen so they can have an extra year of eligibility. It usually takes linemen a long time to have the physical development and maturity to handle the job. But he was desperate to upgrade the line, and Thornton was improving too rapidly to ignore.
"The more I got to know him and his background and the type of kid he is, I did say going into camp that he might be a guy that could possibly be able to come in and help us part way through the season.
"They're all different, but he has that nasty toughness about him. You look at Purdue's right tackle, that guy is a nasty fifth-year senior and a good football player. He's nasty, and Hugh has a little bit of that in him. I think he'll be a player like that.
"It's all going so fast, I don't think it's caught up with him yet. I know he practiced hard, and it makes you feel good watching (him) because he's just going to continue to get better and better."
Thornton has been far from perfect in his first two games. But Zook is excited about his potential.
"He made a few mistakes and obviously he's going to, but the intensity, the flying around, he's going to be a good football player. He has a smile on his face. He's enjoying what he's doing. The more he learns, the better he's going to be, and a little bit of that carries over to the rest of them."
Some have criticized Zook for burning Thornton's redshirt, but he continues to look for ways of winning football games.
"I think you keep making changes. You try to get some energy, get some confidence out there, some guys who will play with intensity. I was very impressed with Hugh's first game, and I think he will get nothing but better the more he plays."