Thornton Ready to Step Up

STARKVILLE - Brandon Thornton has heard all the preseason talk about State's big absence in the offensive backfield. Heck, he even heard it last year when former Bulldog and the school's all-time leading rusher Jerious Norwood was embarking on his final games. How can Mississippi State replace Norwood and who will be the guy to fill his shoes?

Thornton believes there's not just a simple answer for that simple question.

"Like people said, we had a good running back and he left and is gone now," said Thornton. "But we have a couple of guys that are going to step up and step up to the plate. It won't be just one guy but a group helping out to help this team win."

But with Norwood moving on to the Atlanta Falcons, it is Brandon Thornton who has taken his place at tailback on the depth chart.

Thornton fully understands the burden he will shoulder in 2006. He knows there will be more carries and more opportunities.

One thing is for sure, however. Thornton knows he will be ready and he's been preparing for this moment since last season.

"I've just been working harder and trying to pick up where Jerious left off," said Thornton. "I am trying to be a leader like he was. I have to work harder at being a better leader so I will be ready. Plus, I am getting ready so I can have more carries this year."

Some may question Thornton's size of 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds.

But he proved last year that he could take the pounding and still manage to be an integral part of the Bulldogs' ground game.

As a redshirt freshman last year, Thornton finished with 225 yards on 47 carries for a 4.8 yard per carry average. He had a pair of standout games, rushing for 66 yards at Kentucky and then 80 more in the Egg Bowl victory over Ole Miss.

"I think I will be ready to do whatever Coach Croom needs me to do," said Thornton. "And if it's carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game, I will be ready. I am prepared for anything. I just want to help the team win and have a solid running game and I believe I will be able to contribute in that area."

Thornton will have his chance to touch the ball 25 or 30 times a game this fall. Head coach Sylvester Croom notes, though, that it won't be 25 to 30 carries up the gut.

"I think he can touch it 25 or 30 times a game but we are not necessarily going to be running him up the middle 25 or 30 times a game," said Croom. "We don't need him to do that. But we have to develop some more running backs. I like running the football and I've believed that if you are serious about running the football, you better have three or four running backs.

"And I've always believed that. In pro football, it didn't change my mind and now I'm in college, I would like to have six that run the football. Right now Brandon is the only one we can count one and we will see what happens these next two weeks."

Back in 2004, Thornton was a bright-eyed rookie entering the collegiate level after an outstanding prep career at Homewood High School in Birmingham, Ala. Thornton was one of the Top 50 tailbacks in the country according to a couple of prep magazines and websites.

But he is the first to admit his true freshman year was full of ups and downs.

Some thought he would play as a true freshman and help the Bulldogs' depth a tailback. He was in a dead-heat race with former Bulldog Demarcus Johnson for carries for that 2004 campaign.

But then he got the word that he would be redshirted.

Thornton didn't dwell on the negatives yet focused his attention on his future in college, which still had four years remaining on his eligibility clock.

"I did struggle early on in my career at Mississippi State, much like all freshmen do from time to time," said Thornton. "But I didn't let those first few months hold me down and I kept coming out and work hard.

"I knew J-Rock (Norwood) was going to leave after awhile and somebody would have to step up and take his place. I feel like it is my time to step up."

Thornton has also had to step into a leadership role considering the expectations of any tailback at any school in the Southeastern Conference.

But he takes on his new role with confidence and doesn't worry about being just a sophomore.

"I try not to look at my grade classification," said Thornton. "I look at it like I have been here three years now so I am ready to be a leader. I'm not worrying about just being a sophomore or anything like that. I have to be a leader for this offense and I know what my roles will be with this offense."

And one advantage Thornton may have over Norwood is the guys he will be running behind. The entire offensive line returns except former center Chris McNeil, and all the big bodies have another year of experience in the system.

There's more depth up front and more guys who've seen the SEC wars in the trenches.

"That's going to make us so much better because a running back is nothing without a good offensive line," Thornton noted. "Our offensive line has more experience and working better together. We will get this going with their help.

"You have to build that trust between a running back and the offensive line. You have to trust they will make that block or be where they are supposed to be at exactly the right time."

And with a few more practices left under the unforgiving hot August sun, Thornton can barely wait until August 31 when South Carolina pays a visit to Starkville for the season opener.

"We've got two more weeks before we kick the season off," said Thornton. "We've been around here getting prepared, and having fun to get ready for the season. I wish it started today."


Paul Jones is a writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at pjones@cdispatch.com.

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