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NFL DRAFT | DEFENSIVE BACKS

Virginia’s Juan Thornhill seems to have a sixth sense at safety

Juan Thornhill had 13 interceptions over his final three seasons at Virginia.
Juan Thornhill had 13 interceptions over his final three seasons at Virginia.(michael conroy/AP)

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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

CORNERBACKS

PLAYER

SCHOOL

HT.

WT.

40

RD.

*Greedy Williams

LSU

6-2

185

4.37

1

Long and lean ballhawk has the suddenness and long arms to stay with and drape receivers of all shapes and sizes. Backpedals smoothly and breaks on the ball instinctively. Has the perfect name for his position.

Deandre Baker

Georgia

5-11

193

4.52

1

A tad undersized but compensates with excellent instincts and competitiveness. A supremely confident lad, he had 23 pass breakups and 7 interceptions in 36 career games in Athens.

*Byron Murphy

Washington

5-11

190

4.55

1

A superb athlete; as fluid as they come. Excellent mirror skills. Often arrives just in the nick of time to snatch passes or bat them away. Will deliver teeth-rattling hits when asked to play close to the line.

Rock Ya-Sin

Temple

6-0

192

4.51

1

Bound to become the most successful wrestling convert since Stephen Neal. A muscular athlete with quickness and good instincts. Aggressive when going after the ball or the ball carrier. Still a bit raw and will need some coaching up.

*Julian Love

Notre Dame

5-11

195

4.54

1-2

Athletic, aggressive, and instinctive. Showed steady improvement throughout his three years in South Bend. Smart enough to handle multiple duties, including switching coverages mid-play. A solid wrap-up tackler.

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).

SAFETIES

PLAYER

SCHOOL

HT.

WT.

40

RD.

*Deionte Thompson

Alabama

6-1

195

n/a

1

Smart and strong player who can play both in coverage and near the box. The good news is there's plenty in the tank after starting just one season. The bad news is he started just one season.

Nasir Adderley

Delaware

6-0

206

4.54

1

An explosive hitter who developed good cover skills from his time as a cornerback. Has the physical strength to be effective against the run and is also nimble enough to cover tight ends. Didn't play against the highest level of competition.

Johnathan Abram

Mississippi St.

5-11

203

4.45

1-2

A well-chiseled thumper who looks more like a linebacker and could serve in a hybrid role at the NFL level. He can cover one-on-one underneath and will provide solid support over the top. Will be a bit overaggressive in pursuit at times.

Darnell Savage

Maryland

5-11

198

4.36

2

Who doesn't like a football player named Savage? A rangy and athletic player, he has the quickness to serve as a nickel corner in some schemes. He's a little small, comparatively speaking, but he loves to compete and loves to hit.

Juan Thornhill

Virginia

6-0

205

4.42

2

Versatility is this dude's calling card. He can play cornerback, safety, and has even served as a hybrid linebacker at times. He's a reliable player and tackler who is rarely out of place. Could be a special teams contributor immediately.

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).

*underclassman

JIM McBRIDE


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.