Thornton has overcame a lot in his career. The senior from Spotsylvania, Virginia who entered Marshall via Hargrave Military Academy, was a Prop 48 in 2002, forcing him to pay his own way to MU and sit one year. This year, Thornton earned 30 hours of credit to get eligible to play a fourth year for Marshall, thanks for a NCAA program allowing former props to reclaim their fourth year. Changing positions is very little compared to that. "Yeah, it's a big change," said Thornton of playing nickel, "but I've still got a lot to learn. Coach is out there pushing me hard, pretty much helping me to learn the position. Anything to help the team, I'm willing to do, get out there and give what I've got."
Figuring he would be a linebacker again, Thornton spent the summer bulking up from an admittedly light 210 pounds to 230. He now finds himself going the other way on the scale. "Right now, I'm about 222," said Thornton over a light lunch on Wednesday. "I would like to get down to about 215, to playing weight, although Coach Snyder has mentioned 205 to me. No way, but with the sun shining down, and the coaches pushing us, it shouldn't be a problem."
To the average fan, moving from an outside linebacker to a nickel position may seem like a huge change, but Thornton doesn't see it that way. "It's pretty much the same thing. That's what a nickle is, a linebacker with a little more speed and more cover ability." Thorton, who runs around 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, has the speed part down. Now there is the coverage and also a change in the way some things are named. "There's different terminology at linebacker and defensive back…some is the same and some isn't. You just get out there and take what the coaches give you."
Thornton, like his good friend strong safety Curtis Keyes and other seniors on the defensive unit, see themselves as leaders for the young players on defense, especially the ones in the defensive secondary. Most of the cornerbacks are sophomores or freshmen for the Herd in 2006. "I've got to be more vocal," said the always talkative Thornton, normally a great interview for the media. "We (as a defensive unit) have to communicate in all phases of the game and in special teams. That's what helps you win games. I've got to be vocal, talking to the linebackers, talking to the defensive line and the safeties. I'm always out there talking trash, but now I want to make everyone is lined up right and on the same page and to do that we've got to communicate." Thornton will also once again play a "Ranger" on special teams, the outside defender who goes down to make the first hit on kicks and punts. That position is all about speed and hitting, two things Thornton excels at.
Thornton is now playing for his fourth coach in four season at Marshall, as the Herd prepares for the opener at West Virginia. At rover, it was coach George Darlington. At linebacker in 2004, it was current Marshall Assistant AD for Football Operations, Mark Gale. Last season, it was new linebackers coach, and former MU safety, Shannon Morrison. Now Thorton finds himself with one of the two new full-time coaches at Marshall for 2006 in defensive backs coach Paul Nichols (the other being tight ends coach Phil Ratliff who, like Morrison, is a former Herd All-American). Nichols is nothing if not a high energy coach, but Thornton respects that. "Coach Nichols is a great guy, I love playing for him just like I loved playing for all these other coaches. He expects us to match his intensity and that's great. It makes us as DBs go out there and work harder. He works you, he wants the best for you, he can be hard on you but wants you to be better. That's like the whole staff."
Thorton, who got this season back academically after sitting out in 2002, will be 24 in November. Coach Nichols just finished his degree at Davidson College in 2003, where he was an outstanding quarterback, before spending 2004-05 on The Ohio State University football staff of head coach Jim Tressel. But while Nichols is only about three years older than Thorton, but that makes little difference to the Herd nickel back. "It's different, but my Grandma taught me to respect people older than you," said Thorton, with his ever-present smile. "I give him the same respect I give to all my coaches in my whole career."
The bottom line to the move, in the words of head coach Mark Snyder of Marshall, is to get the best 11 players on the field at the same time. Obviously, he count Thornton in that group of 11 best defensive players, with his speed, toughness and smarts as a senior. As seniors, however, the Herd fourth and fifth year players keep coming back to one point: last year's 4-7 finish was unacceptable for Marshall football players, coaches and fans. Thornton thinks Snyder has the right ideas for returning Marshall to the glory days of the 1988-2003 era, when the Herd won eight conference titles, five bowls and two national championships. "We've got to become a family, both on and off the field. Everybody is preaching that, looking after each other. It's pretty much got to be a brotherhood, that's what Coach Snyder calls it," said Thornton. "Everyone is buying into that and it all starts with us becoming one unit as a team, not one person here or one group there. We're all in this as a team, so that's where the improvement will start. Everybody is helping each other, that's what we're doing...the coaches picking us up, the older guys picking up the young guys and even the young guys picking up us older guys. It all starts with being a team." With Dennis Thornton, it's always been about what's best for the team, for Marshall and then for himself, never more so than here in 2006.