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Linebacker David Thornton was the talk of the town whenever he returned home to Goldsboro, N.C., during the off-season. Friends chatted about planning trips to attend his games. Others had already placed orders to receive NFL Ticket on DirecTV. Even Thornton's onetime doubters lined up to compliment him: A high school coach who had tried to dissuade him from walking on at North Carolina talked of how Thornton embodies the fruits of hard work and diligence.
The Colts are just as excited to see how Thornton responds in his first season as a starter. As the weakside linebacker in coach Tony Dungy's cover-two scheme, Thornton will be freed up to track the ball from sideline to sideline. Mike Peterson thrived at the position last season, leading Indianapolis with 136 tackles and three interceptions, but he left for the Jaguars as a free agent. For the Indianapolis defense to succeed, Thornton has to have the same kind of impact.
On appearance alone the 6'2", 230-pound Thornton appears up to the task. He possesses exceptional quickness and range, which is why the Colts didn't fight to keep Peterson. A fourth-round draft pick in 2002, Thornton spent his rookie season playing on special teams and in nickel situations. He often worked with Peterson after practice to get a better understanding of his defensive keys and to improve his stance and his backpedaling skills. This year defensive coordinator Ron Meeks wants Thornton to react more instinctively. There are no such concerns about his tackling ability, however. Teammates still rave about his special teams play last season. "Let's just say if David hits people on defense like he hit them on special teams, he's going to be something," says tight end Marcus Pollard.
Coming out of Goldsboro High, Thornton was hardly thought of as anything unique. As a senior he weighed 170 pounds and played quarterback and safety. He received two scholarship offers, both from Division II schools, then walked on at North Carolina as a linebacker. Coach Carl Torbush promised him a scholarship after his junior year, but when Torbush was subsequently fired, Thornton had to prove himself all over again to new coach John Bunting, a former NFL linebacker and assistant coach. Thornton held onto his scholarship with a strong showing in spring practice, then led the Tar Heels in tackles during his senior season. Some analysts said that the Colts got a bargain when they snapped him up early on the second day of the draft.
Thornton hasn't forgotten what he went through on the road to becoming an NFL starter. He uses that as motivation, playing with a passion that Indy must have on defense. Though the unit improved last year in the defensive-minded Dungy's first season, it still surrendered 124.5 rushing yards a game, which ranked 20th in the league. But the Jets' 41-0 rout of the Colts in an AFC wild-card playoff last January showed how far the defense still has to go.
This year Indianapolis will keep its defenders fresh by using a deep rotation up front featuring second-year speed rusher Dwight Freeney, who had 13 sacks as a rookie. The key is getting the linemen more comfortable with Dungy's single-gap system. "The players have shown a passion for being more precise, which you need in this defense," says Dungy, who guided the Colts to a 10-6 record last year. "They know that if everybody does their job, the scheme will work. Now that they have an appreciation for that, nobody wants to be the person who winds up out of position."
Thornton, of course, is the one player who can least afford a gaffe—or a costly injury. His backup is Cato June, a rookie sixth-round draft pick who played safety at Michigan. But Thornton doesn't appear overly concerned. "Ever since I've been here, I've been focused on what I can do to help this team win," he says. "It started with opportunities on special teams and in the nickel, and now I have to get it done as a starter."
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