Player: Khyri Thornton
School: Southern Mississippi
Year Entered: 2009
College Position: NG-DT
Pro Position: NG (3-4 alignment); DT (4-3 alignment)
Bench Press: 225x28
Power Clean: 340
Vertical Jump: 29"
Broad Jump: 9'04"
Arms: 32 1/2"
Hands: 9 1/2"
Time (10): 1.78
Time (20): 2.94
Time (40): 5.03
20-yd Shuttle: 4.76
2012 Worst Games: Central Florida, Alabama-Birmingham, Southern Methodist
2011 Worst Games: Louisiana Tech, Rice, Southern Methodist
Thornton has continued to add bulk and strength to his once lanky frame. He still has more room to add bulk without it affecting his impressive initial burst off the snap. He shows the bone structure, long arms, thick chest, broad shoulders, good bubble and thick thighs to be quite effective as a zero-gap type in a 3-4 alignment or as an under-tackle in a 4-3 system.
Thornton has above average athletic ability, showing good quickness off the snap, along with the strong anchor and hand punch to split double teams. He is a short strider who flashes good speed coming off the edge or when slipping off tackles to take an inside gap. He shows the foot quickness to chase the quarterback around the backfield (see 2013 Florida International and North Texas and 2012 Louisville and Rice games). His agility is evident by the way he remains low in his pads while generating ease of movement when changing direction to close on the ball. He flashes good power and upper body explosion to consistently walk the blocker back into the quarterback or clog the rush lanes by neutralizing the lead blocker when working in-line. For a player his size, his sudden moves and strong hand placement are ideal for shooting the inside gaps in a 3-4 alignment, but his power base and anchor make him a nice fit as an under- tackle in a traditional 4-3 front wall. He plays with good urgency and has the long reach and hand placement to easily sidestep low blocks. He changes direction smoothly and closes in a hurry when working his way down the line. He has the leaping ability and reach to deflect passes at the line of scrimmage and when he keeps his pads down, he can generate a very quick push off the snap to penetrate and shoot the gaps. For a player of his size, he demonstrates very loose hips, which allow him to slip off blocks and redirect without needing to gather.
Thornton made tremendous strides in his performance after shifting to a more natural defensive tackle position as a junior. He shows the natural instincts to quickly locate the ball and close on the play with urgency. He is a "football smart" athlete who should have no problem taking plays from the chalkboard to the playing field. He has the ability to retain plays with minimal reps and performs with good awareness, keeping his hands inside his frame while quickly recognizing blocking schemes. He is quick to find the football in pursuit and is not the type that will bite on play action or misdirection.
Thornton is a well-liked performer who has taken well to his role as the "stud" and leader of a young defensive unit. He has no known off-field issues and the staff says he is a willing participant in off-season training.
Thornton plays with a high motor, along with tough aggression. He is relentless in pursuit and even when blockers lock on him, he will give second/third effort in attempts to escape and close on the ball. He has become a productive and dominant playmaker vs. the ground game (for his career, opponents have averaged just 0.60 yards per rushing attempt on plays directed at him). The thing you see on film is that he will not let up (see 2013 Arkansas, Florida International and North Texas games). He is a tireless worker in the training room and practices, as the younger players try to emulate his attitude.
Thornton has become a solid "program" player, buying into what the coaches expect from him, as he showed marked improvement as a gap performer after moving inside from the weak-side tackle position prior to his senior season. He is an accountable type who has taken well to his leadership role. He might not say much, letting his actions speak loudly for him, but he will not hesitate to get vocal when needed. He is willing to do the "little extras" needed to get better and his continued development in 2013 will see NFL teams quickly forget the poor level of play from his teammates as a whole when evaluating this underrated athlete.
Thornton shows good initial quickness, as he has the leg drive to explode off the ball and the hand punch to consistently rock the offensive linemen back on their heels. He has the suddenness to easily gain advantage out of the "blocks" and flashes that strong hand movement to shock and jolt the lead blockers. He was much more consistent with his hand usage and staying low in his pads as a senior than in his first two seasons as a starter (seemed to relish taking on double teams more than playing in one-on-one battles). He is a good quick-twitch player who can gain immediate penetration when he maintains that low pad level and keeps his hands active within his frame. You can see on film his quickness getting into gaps to disrupt the running play (see 2013 North Texas and Louisiana Tech contests). He can surprise a lethargic blocker and slip past double teams with his burst, showing the strength needed to get a good push off his man. He excels at neutralizing multiple blockers and has that hip shake you want when trying to execute counter moves. He is so quick to get an edge on the blocker that his opponent will generally get put to the ground or be left grasping at air. When he gains advantage, he will generally keep it. He is very light on his feet, doing a nice job of working down the line when playing in the short area.
Strength at Point
Thornton is a naturally strong athlete, but with the additional bulk on his frame in the last year (went from 283 as a junior to 304 as a senior), he has the added benefit of knowing how to use that bulk to lean on and slip off blocks. He is quick to use his hands in attempts to shock, throw and jerk the offensive lineman and even vs. double teams, he won't stay blocked for long. He has the good balance and anchor to stay on his feet and uses his arm length well to defeat low blocks at his legs. His hand punch is highlighted by the way he forcefully disengages from blocks and as he continues to improve his leverage working in-line, he can be quite effective staying on the tail of a ball carrier to chase down running plays in the backfield (see 2013 Florida International and North Texas and 2012 Louisville and Rice games). I am very impressed with his developing upper body strength, as it allows him to consistently use his hands to gain separation or when trying to stuff and shed. He also shows the nimble feet to adjust to movement when working down the line. He is quick to fill the rush lanes and shows good creativity and spin moves shooting the gaps. He is very combative with his hands and has the strength to shock and control and opponent when he locks on. Last year, he developed into the type of player that demands constant double team activity from his opponent, as he is very hard to move off the line. When he plants his feet and settles in for a battle, he uses his low center of gravity to gain leverage and he keeps his feet free, demonstrating very effective two-gap potential.
Use of Hands
This is where Thornton has shown marked improvement, as he has become confident in his hand punch to shock and jolt. He no longer gets his hands outside his frame, keeping them tight to prevent blockers from getting into his chest, locking on and riding him wide from the play (had those issues as a sophomore). He flashes that explosive punch needed to quickly gain separation and uses them with authority to control the action at the point of attack. When he keeps those hands active, he has good success when trying to stack and extend. He also shows good timing to get his hands up to create vision issues for quarterbacks trying to throw the underneath balls. Thornton's quick arm-over action and upper body strength lets him consistently beat his blocker off the snap. Even when he short-arms at times, he stays after the blocker, using his body lean to get a push.
Thanks to his experience at weak-side tackle, Thornton is more mobile working down the line than the generally slow-prodding interior defensive linemen. He has the valid foot speed to give chase and pursue in the backfield, staying low in his pads while keeping his hands active to avoid low blocks. He also demonstrates good hustle agility from the back-side, along with the burst needed to close on the quarterback (see 2013 Florida International and 2012 Louisville contests). With his playing speed, he has had good success clearing trash that guards and centers try to create when double-teaming him. There are times where he will get a bit high in his stance (mostly on long pursuits), and when this happens, he tends to narrow his base and fail to keep his feet free, but that was more of an issue as a freshman and sophomore than the last two years.
It was "night and day" watching Thornton tackle in 2013 compared to previous seasons. The added bulk and more confidence in his hand strength allowed him to tie up multiple blockers and still make the big plays (had 22 third-down stops, two more on fourth down and caused three interceptions with his pressures as a senior). He has the functional strength to clog the inside rush lanes and shows good explosion and striking power, along with the wrap-up technique to be productive at the NFL level. He needs to continue to play at his 2013 level, where he showed great strength in locking up blockers, along with the power to take away the outside leg of the running back to prevent the ball carriers forward progress (allowed just seven ball carriers to record first down carries vs. him in his last 23 games). He has very good strength behind his hits and is an efficient wrap-up tackler with the long arms to engulf the perimeter runners. He has the lateral agility to push the outside running game back inside and the field vision to quickly locate the cutback lanes. Because of his wide frame and brute strength, when he makes a collision tackle, he instantly stops the ball carrier's momentum. There is no leakage when working inside, but when he does get a little out of control (not often as a junior or senior), he will miss tackles when operating in space.
Thornton has allowed only seven first downs on 77 running plays directed at him), preventing those runners from gaining positive yardage on 21 of those carries (27.27%). He has very good balance to stay on his feet working through trash and uses his natural strength well to plug the inside gaps. His arm strength and hand punch lets him get the separation needed to get back on the play in a hurry. He also uses his reach effectively to stack and his wide anchor to hold ground at the point of attack (see 2013 Florida International, North Texas and Louisiana Tech games). With his quickness shooting the gaps and solid base, he's tough to move out, even when matching up vs. double teams. He is tough to defend in the short area when moving down the line and is very conscious of low blocks and how to avoid them. With more bulk, he should have no problem at the NFL level in becoming an immovable object at the point of attack, as he is quick to hunker down and fill the rush lanes.
Thornton has recorded just 1.5 sacks the last two years, but has excelled much better on the bull rush than pass rush, making ten of his 39 tackles behind the line of scrimmage as a senior, while eleven of his 36 stops in 2012 were also for losses. Once he was moved inside to nose guard and faced constant double teams, he showed even better snap reaction (only one false start as a senior) and could be a "hidden gem" for an NFL coach that might want to use him on stunts and twists, thanks to his ability to explode off the snap and use his hands well to leverage. He shows good desire in attempts to collapse the pocket and gives solid second effort vs. double teams when trying to disengage. He shows good agility squeezing the pocket and what is impressive from viewing 2013 film is that it was rare to see him get narrow in his base coming off the edge, as blockers had little or no success forcing him out of the pocket.
Closing on the QB
Thornton has good initial speed for a defensive tackle when trying to collapse the pocket. He has functional speed to explode through the inside gaps, as he showed good success disrupting the backfield. He flashes the pressure production that will allow a bull rusher to be isolated in his pursuit to the quarterback, as Thornton had very good success splitting double teams in 2013. You can see on film that extra acceleration and surge when attacking the passer, along with the desire to make things happen once he penetrates the line of scrimmage (had just three missed tackles on thirteen backfield tackle attempts). With his balance and agility, he has no problems with twists and games. He shows great confidence when playing over the center's head, as he was able to give a good arm-over action to gain advantage over the outside shoulder of the guards in attempts to apply pressure.
Thornton shows good reactionary skills to contain the outside run and is alert to play action and misdirection. He shows good urgency in attempts to locate the ball and an excellent feel for blocks, easily reacting to blocking pressure to locate the ball when working through trash. He knows how to time his leaps to get his fair share of pass deflections at the line of scrimmage. He is very alert for angle blocks and traps, using his hands effectively to counter. When he recognizes the scheme and sees the play develop, he is quick to react.
One of the terms used to describe a defensive lineman is that the player is an efficient run stuffer. Perhaps no one player has been more important to his team in shutting down the opposition's running game than Thornton. Runners have failed to gain positive yardage on 21-of-77 carries directed at the Southern Mississippi lineman last two years. He shows good upper body muscle definition, tight waist and hips, thick thighs and calves and a good bubble. He has excellent quickness and explosion coming off the snap. He is a physical wrap-up tackler who can close down the line of scrimmage and shows excellent lateral pursuit ability.
Thornton shows a strong anchor vs. the double team and flashes good hand usage to defeat low blocks. He is a disruptive force in the backfield due to his lateral agility and chase speed. He does a very good job of working off the offensive guard's edge when redirecting in-line. He is an active bull rusher who relies on a very effective swim move and a strong burst to close on the quarterback. He is relentless in pursuit and knows how to use his size to gain leverage. He does a nice job of getting his hands into the blocker to stand up and push back the opponent coming off the snap.
Thornton has the lower leg drive to prevent from getting locked up or rerouted. He also does a very good job of keeping his feet in traffic. He shows fast hands, smooth hips and excellent quickness coming off the edge. Combine that with his rip, swim, counter and bull rush moves and you can see why he will generally face regular double coverage. He will get a little high in his stance at times, but his change of direction agility and foot speed allows him to separate and redirect.
When he plays at a good pad level, Thornton is very capable of pushing the pocket with his power and also does a nice job of using his body lean to penetrate coming off the edge. He is usually explosive in his initial move and can snatch, separate and shed blocks with efficiency. He shows the instincts to find the ball in traffic and has that strong anchor needed to anchor and hold ground at the point of attack. The thing you notice on film is his ability to come across the blocker's face and the power to collapse the rush lanes when working inside. His backside closing burst and lateral agility allow him to string out plays to the sidelines with blockers on him.
Against the run, Thornton shows good hand usage to protect his body and play off cuts. He has good strength to gain leverage on the move and has enough strength to shock the opponent coming off blocks. Against the pass, he has the agility to drop some on zone blitzes and shows good awareness to knock down the pass at the line of scrimmage. His burst and acceleration working in space makes him very effective chasing down the ball in long pursuit.
Final grade: 6.77. (That grade indicates Eventual Starter-Could move into the starting lineup within three years and has the average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but is expected to contribute...While not a draft projection, it is a grade usually assiated with a second round talent.)
Kevin Williams-ex-Minnesota…Like Williams, Thornton is bigger, faster and stronger than he was earlier in his collegiate career. He plays with good ball anticipation and short area explosion to dominate vs. the run. He has become very effective at neutralizing double teams and when it comes to shutting down the inside running game, he is a tireless worker in the trenches, especially when shooting the gaps the last two years. With his speed, lateral agility and strength, he could develop nicely there, if a patient coach will teach him proper technique. Whether in a 3-4 as a nose guard or in a 4-3 alignment as an under-tackle, if he continues to grow and add strength, few blockers at the professional level will have success in containing him.
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