Before kickoff of The Citadel and NC State contest on Saturday night, most fans inside of Carter-Finley Stadium probably did not know who Shadrach Thornton was. By the end of the first quarter, though, everybody in the stands knew the true freshman running back's name. After getting the start, Thornton rushed nine times for 61 yards and two scores in the opening frame.
The rookie from Hinesville, Ga., finished the contest with 21 rushes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, and he was equally impressive with the media following the contest. He held court on the staircase of the Murphy Center lobby, standing high above the swarm of reporters and television cameras, and talked for nine-and-a-half minutes - more than a full minute longer than the length of coach Tom O'Brien's question and answer session. Never once did Thornton look or sound like a 19-year-old doing this for the first time, and his off-the-field poise matched his effort on the field.
The opportunity only came after the suspension of redshirt sophomore Mustafa Greene continued and the top two backs on the depth chart, senior James Washington and redshirt sophomore Tony Creecy, were unavailable due to injury, but he was impressive nonetheless.
"He was the only healthy back that practiced all week," O'Brien said after the game. "He's a good running back, and he really progressed. By the fourth scrimmage, you could see that he could run the football, the question was can he do everything else?"
The 6-foot, 200-pounder answered that question with a resounding yes. He now leads the team with 145 rushing yards on the year, and he also added four catches for 26 yards. He was the first runner to record a 100-yard game this campaign, and the first freshman to do so since current New York Giants' back Andre Brown in 2005.
A Wolfpack rookie had not surpassed the century mark in his collegiate debut since Joe McIntosh in 1981, and Thornton not only did that, but he made plays even without the ball in his hands. Twice, he helped spring big gains with a downfield block, including a knockdown on Quintin Payton's 43-yard gain in the first quarter.
"We got to see what he could do during fall camp," starting center Camden Wentz said. "We all said, 'we'd love to block for that kid, he runs really hard,' and on the play that Quintin broke, he laid somebody out. He wasn't just trying to run, he was looking to get his nose in there. That's pretty admirable when it comes to a running back. We're excited to have back there and to keep blocking for him."
"The play isn't over, it doesn't stop until the whistle blows," Thornton explained. "If I'm not receiving or running the ball, it's an all-around job, so I have to be able to get downfield and help my teammates do something positive."
After the complete performance on Saturday night, O'Brien sounded optimistic that Thornton would have a role in the ground game for the remainder of the year.
"When we decided to play Shadrach, he's going to be part of the rotation going forward," he said. "I think he showed today that he can get in there and play, so we'll see. Who knows what the health will be of anybody, we may be in the same situation next week."
Redshirt senior quarterback Mike Glennon noted that Thornton's work ethic stood out in fall camp, in addition to his play on the field. He said that helped the youngster be ready when called upon because, while Thornton was notified to get ready to play a role early in the week, the signal caller didn't know who the starting running back would be until Saturday.
"He's a student of the game," Glennon said. "When I would go to the film room by myself during camp, he was beating me to it. He would get up there right away, watch and try to learn. This week, he approached it really well. He knew his opportunity, he was always asking questions and he answered all of them today.
"He was eager to learn back then, he wanted to be good. He was always watching film, so it doesn't come as any surprise that he was ready to go. I think he's someone who can provide a spark to our offense, and for his first start ever, it's pretty impressive."
Thornton said he was just doing what he always does - work as hard as he can in practice and be prepared when his number is called.
"They didn't ask me to do anything but go out there and play football like I've been playing for a long time," he said. "I'm pretty thankful that I've got a good team and strong offensive linemen - they made the way for me tonight. I couldn't have done anything without those guys, it starts up front.
"I just go hard everyday. They had me on the scout team [during the beginning of the year], so I just wanted to do my best to give the first defense the best look possible. You practice how you play, so regardless of whether I was going to get in or not, I'm going to go 110 percent. The game is won in practice, not on game day - you put in all of the hard work in practice and it shows on Saturday."
He did not appear on the pregame depth chart given out to the media before the tilt with The Citadel, but that didn't bother the rookie. He was confident in what he has done since arriving on campus, and trusted in his abilities when the whistle blew.
"It doesn't matter," he said of his absence from the depth chart. "What matters is what happens during the game. I dreamed [of this opportunity], I wrote it down as a goal, and now, I'm just happy to be here."
Thornton said the depth chart never intimidated him - from the time he was recruited through preseason camp, when he was behind a trio of experienced players. He's looking forward to the chance to continue proving himself and earning more opportunities.
"I'm a competitor, that's what football is about - competing," he said. "If I'm not on the field, I'm competing to get them better, and vice versa. Competition breeds success.
"I have good backs ahead of me, they're more experienced than I am and I'm still learning from those guys. I just want to keep up the good work and keep at it."