When Juan Thornhill arrived at the University of Virginia, he quickly went on the defensive.
Despite a standout high school career as a quarterback — he led Altavista (Va.) High to back-to-back state crowns — the Cavalier coaching staff’s primary mission was to get Thornhill into the secondary.
Originally projected as a safety, Thornhill actually filled an immediate need as a cornerback during his first three seasons in Charlottesville before settling in at safety for his senior year.
“The new coaching staff came in and they were trying to find an opportunity for me to get on the field,” said Thornhill. “They put me at cornerback and they noticed that I started making more plays, so they left me there.
“My junior year, my plan was to play safety, so I played the first game at safety and then one of our corners got hurt, so they moved me back to cornerback. Finally, Quin Blanding left last year and they moved me back to safety this past season.’’
As it turned out, Thornhill’s playmaking ability flashed no matter where he lined up in the secondary. The 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pounder is quite confident where he’ll be lining up as a professional.
“I’m definitely a safety,’’ Thornhill said. “I’m the type of player that likes to play with my face toward the ball instead of with my back toward the ball. I feel like I’m a ballhawk. When the ball is in the air, I can make a play on the left side of the field or the right side of the field.”
His ballhawking skills were consistent throughout his career as Thornhill collected 13 interceptions and 26 pass breakups over his final three seasons. He credited instincts and film work that led to solid presnap reads as the reason for his thievery and tight coverage.
Or maybe he’s just clairvoyant.
“It’s like I can see things happening before they happen,’’ Thornhill said. “I can see where the quarterback is throwing. I just read his eyes pretty well and break before the ball is released. I think that is my biggest thing. I’m a good player at reading the quarterback.’’
Thornhill possesses a nifty blend of size, speed, and strength for the position. His cover skills were honed from his background as a corner, and he showed he could handle the rigors of playing near the box in run support.
Thornhill said he doesn’t model himself after any one player, choosing instead to pick up pointers from a variety of current NFLers.
“I’ll watch guys like Jamal Adams because I know he’s a physical player. He’s in the box and doing things like that,’’ said Thornhill. “And then I’ll watch a guys like Earl Thomas because he’s always back deep and roaming the field, so I’ll pick out things from their game to try to put them into mine.’’
His athleticism popped on tape, but for good measure he put on a show at the NFL Combine.
Thornhill led all defensive backs with a 44-inch vertical leap in addition to clearing 11 feet 9 inches in the broad jump. He clocked a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash and finished second among DBs with 21 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
The performance caught the attention of a lot of teams and led ESPN analyst Mel Kiper to reassess Thornhill.
“I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he goes in the first round,’’ said Kiper. “At the latest, he’s an early second-round pick.’’
While the Patriots have a solid safety rotation in place — including three starters and good depth pieces — coach Bill Belichick has an affinity for the position, and Thornhill’s versatility (he even lined up as a hybrid linebacker in some packages) could be enticing, as New England currently owns five second-day selections.
The top defensive backs in the draft
Best of the rest: *Trayvon Mullen, Clemson (6-1, 199, 4.46); Amani Oruwariye, Penn State (6-2, 205, 4.47); Joejuan Williams, Vanderbilt (6-4, 211, 4.64); Lonnie Johnson Jr., Kentucky (6-2, 213, 4.52); *Jamel Dean, Auburn (6-1, 206, 4.30).
Best of the rest: *Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida (5-11, 210, 4.48); *Mike Bell, Fresno State (6-3, 210, 4.83); *Taylor Rapp, Washington (6-0, 208, N/A); Will Harris, Boston College (6-1, 207, 4.41); Marquise Blair, Utah (6-1, 195, 4.48); Sheldrick Redwine, Miami (6-0, 196, 4.44).