INDIANAPOLIS — Hugh Thornton didn’t think he’d ever be at the NFL scouting combine.
Not when he attended 12 schools before enrolling at the University of Illinois.
Not when he spent a chunk of his childhood in Jamaica, oblivious to the NFL.
Not when he experienced the unthinkable tragedy of his mother and 8-year-old sister being killed while he slept when he was 12 years old.
Not even when he made an immediate impact at Oberlin High School as a senior and was recruited to Illinois.
“No. Not at all,” he said.
Thornton spoke Thursday from inside Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts. He had made it to the combine, and an NFL roster is next.
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound offensive lineman is rated the third-best guard by Pro Football Weekly and expected to be drafted from the third to fifth round.
“I don’t know everybody’s story personally, but I think that I’ve been through a lot of stuff that people couldn’t even imagine,” Thornton said. “Just being here is a testimony of what kind of person I am.”
Thornton appeared uncomfortable when parts of his past were mentioned and wanted to keep the focus on football and the positive.
He calls Oberlin and Boise, Idaho, home and makes it back to both two or three times a year. His mother grew up in Oberlin, he has family there and he lived with his aunt while at Oberlin High.
“I’m stepping into a business where your future is kind of unpredictable and you’ve got to be able to adjust to change and be flexible,” he said. “And so I’ve moved around, went to 12 different schools in 12 years until I went to Illinois, so I’m able to adjust and get the best use of an experience.”
Thornton spoke positively of his time at Oberlin, but admitted the culture shock when he arrived on campus in Champaign.
“Just talking about population alone, jumping from a graduating class of like 50 people to an undergraduate class of 40,000. It was crazy, but I think it was well needed,” he said. “There’s pros and cons to small-town life. We had a good team, we had some good players on that team, but a lot of the schemes were zone right, zone left, block right, block left. A little bit archaic. Not to talk bad about them, but that’s kind of what it was, kind of how it is in a lot of high school programs.
“So going from that to studying film and being quizzed and asking questions about what’s this defense, what’s that defense? I think I was a little underprepared. But it was a good experience.”
Thornton calls himself a “late bloomer” because he wasn’t the most highly recruited kid out of Oberlin. He realized as a junior for the Illini he was improving and NFL teams were noticing. He said he got better every time he faced high-caliber defensive linemen like Ohio State’s John Simon and Purdue’s Kawann Short, which helped his confidence.
“Right now I think I’m an underdog,” he said. “I just want to make the university proud and make my family proud and hopefully spark an interest in some of these teams and hopefully get drafted.
“I’ve got a little chip on my shoulder and I’m going to come out here and whatever chance I get perform to my ability.”
Thornton’s first taste of the predraft scrutiny came at the Senior Bowl. He was asked to play right guard after spending his senior season at left tackle and struggled a bit.
“I don’t necessarily think the Senior Bowl practices were equivalent to what his game action has been through his career,” Senior Bowl executive director and former Browns general manager Phil Savage told The Chronicle-Telegram. “Most of it had to do with the adjustment of going from tackle to guard. Things just happen quicker on the inside. Guys are right in your face. I give him credit, he continued to fight.”
The trip to Mobile, Ala., was another milestone for Thornton.
“That experience was awesome, just to come from Ohio, from a small town like Oberlin, end up four years later at the Senior Bowl amongst some of the top players in the country was an honor and a blessing,” he said. “I started out a little rocky, but towards the end of the week I started to get it together and have a better game, thought I had a pretty good week.”
Thornton may consider himself an underdog, but he has plenty of support in the scouting community.
Pro Football Weekly said he plays nasty and aggressive, is strong-handed and athletic and plays through injuries.
“He could turn out to be a top-tier performer if he can learn to channel his emotions properly,” the scouting report said.
Thornton had a personal scouting report.
“I’m tenacious, I’m physical and I finish people, I play to the whistle,” he said. “Some of the things I need to get better on are some technique and overall knowledge of the game.”
Thornton made 35 starts in 42 games. He opened his career at right tackle and played weakside guard the next two years before the move to left tackle.
“He’s kind of an interesting kid,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said. “He’s got positional versatility. People don’t understand how valuable it is to play with your left or right hand down in the dirt.”
Thornton said he’s met with a number of teams and they like him at guard, and he thinks his versatility will give him an edge in making a roster. He isn’t consumed by what the draftniks are predicting.
“Everybody hopes to get drafted in the top three rounds. Realistically I just want a chance to play football, especially at the next level,” he said. “Wherever I get drafted I’ll be happy. So I’m here to just try to do my best and see what happens.”
Thornton had been through the extensive medical exams and the team interviews were expected to continue Thursday night. He’ll work out for the coaches and scouts Saturday.
“I’m enjoying the whole process,” he said. “It’s busy, you’re up early in the morning and go to sleep late, but it’s definitely an exciting experience and I’m taking full advantage of every resource I have here.”
After all, he never expected to be here.