Rated as the 20th-best defensive tackle in the nation after a standout career at Bay High School in Panama City, Fla., he was set to attend Florida State but didn't qualify for academic reasons. He turned his attention to the University of Southern Florida, but was denied entry despite meeting NCAA qualifying requirements.
"It was frustrating," Thornton said. "I learned about college football, it's a business more than anything. I look back and I don't have any regrets. Looking back on it, it was a blessing."
Undeterred, Thornton ended up at Southern Miss and embarked on a standout career. He was voted team captain as a senior and closed his career with 116 tackles (58 solo), with 37 for losses including 5.5 sacks, on his way to second-team all-Conference USA honors. While his tenure included a 12-win sophomore season, it was followed by a crushing 22-game losing streak that somehow didn't crush his spirit.
"You push through and fight every day," he said. "I felt like, I had an opportunity to play college football. A lot of times when I used to go home, people reminded me of that. They reminded me others would like to be in my position. Every game, every day … was a blessing."
That includes the game that finally snapped the Golden Eagles' dubious streak. Of course, Thornton was on the sideline nursing a deep bone bruise in his right leg suffered the week before.
"It was hard, but I was happy because we didn't lose all our games," he said. "We were trying to bring back the tradition of winning. I was glad to be a part of that win. I was disappointed I couldn't play in it and be a part of it, but it was still my team and I feel like I was still a leader. After the game, all of my teammates came over and gave me a hug and said they got the win for me."
Now, the 6-foot-3, 304-pounder will have the chance to contribute to some wins at the pro level. He was a either a "fast riser" — the NFL's head scout, Dave-Te' Thomas, had Thornton as his "most underrated" nose tackle — or a projected fifth- or sixth-round pick, depending on who you believe. But the former seemed to be where Packers general manager Ted Thompson was leaning when he selected Thornton with the 85th overall pick in the third round.
"To be honest with you, I didn't really have high expectations of going high in the draft," Thornton said. "I didn't know a lot of teams were willing to take me. I told my agent, ‘Don't tell me anything. Keep it to yourself.'
"I had no idea (Green Bay) was interested."
But they were. Very interested, as a matter of fact. Just two picks after Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III went off the board – nearly two rounds later than many thought – Green Bay chose the unheralded and largely unheard of Thornton over higher-ranked prospects like Penn State's DaQuan Jones, Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis and Tennessee's Daniel McCullers.
"Khryi can catch your eye," Thompson said when asked what separated Thornton from the remaining players. "He played on a team that didn't win that many games but he's extraordinarily quick off the ball and has the ability to penetrate and get in the backfield and pursue laterally and that sort of thing. So, we think he gives us a chance to have a little juice."
"Juice" in scout speak equates to energy, hustle and, hopefully, some pass rush. He lined up all along the defensive front at Southern Miss and could play either the three-technique – shading the outside shoulder of the guard as more of an inside rusher -- or five-technique end – straight across from the offensive tackle with responsibility for two gaps. He'll be battling for snaps on a mostly young defensive line stocked with players like Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd, Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones, not to mention veterans like B.J. Raji, Letroy Guion and Julius Peppers.
But Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac saw enough tape of Thornton's tangibles and demeanor to be excited about adding him to the mix.
"I think the biggest thing when you watch a guy from a 1-24 team, or whatever their record was, is his competitiveness throughout those games," Trgovac said. "Sometimes it's hard when you're losing all the time to keep your spirits going and he didn't have a problem with that.
"The best thing about him is probably his get-off off the ball. He's got really good, quick feet. The guy is, what, 305 pounds and ran a five flat (4.99) 40. That's the thing that impressed me the most, was some of the movement defenses that he did he was able to get into the gap fast and shoot that gap."
Between the NFL Combine and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, the versatile Thornton caught the eyes of scouts, whether he realized it or not. And as a member of the Packers, the chances of him seeing 22 losses over the length of his contract seem slim. Suddenly, the advice he gave to his teammates during those tough times is coming to pass.
"I told guys the eye in the sky never lies. If you're down 40 or up 40, play hard to the whistle and, hopefully, somebody will see you."
And they did.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.