Grigson and his staff had high grades on Thornton and had one of Thornton’s former coaches, Joe Gilbert, on board in Indianapolis as the team kept tabs on a prized prospect.
On draft day, Grigson pounced.
“He was targeted since we woke up this morning,” said Grigson. “We’ve been talking about him for a real, long time. Our grades are all consistent with him being a really, really talented guy who will play in this league a long time at high level. It’s nice to know he’s wearing a horseshoe.”
Thornton missed time in camp with an injury and saw sparse action in the opener. In week two, left guard
“It’s going to be a while before it’s where I want it to be,” said Thornton. “(I’m) just kind of getting a feel for the NFL and this league, playing next to the guys. I’m just looking to get better each and every day.”
Thornton felt his learning process pre-camp was good, but he did not get the reps he would have preferred in preseason. He was able to start the preseason finale at Cincinnati.
“One of the biggest challenges is just the speed of the defense and how quick things show up, how savvy some of these defenses are in disguising blitzes and disguising coverages,” said Thornton. “There’s just a lot more that you need to know at the offensive line position at this level of the game.”
Being a multi-position starter at Illinois has benefited him since that is a central part of the NFL existence of linemen. Being versatile on the line is a key when normally only eight or nine players are kept on the unit, and some can be game-day deactivations.
“He’s played well. He’s had his moments like everybody else but he’s getting better each and every week. Hugh is a big, strong, athletic guy,” said Chuck Pagano. “He missed time during camp, but he stayed with it from a mental standpoint and took all the mental reps on the side.
“He’s a smart guy, loves to play the game. He’s got some things to clean up just like everybody else, but you can see the confidence starting to build. The guys around him have confidence in him, and they’re helping him. He’s a powerful guy. You don’t want to get in a tussle with him.”
Gilbert had a very close view of Thornton at Champaign.
“Hugh is a guy who has unlimited ability. He’s explosive, big, strong, and he has great change of direction,” said Gilbert. “He’s very powerful. You never really realize how strong he actually is. Hugh really competes. He’s a really solid guy who can be special.”
“Coming here, having a dynamic running game and passing game, I can’t just lean on one skill set,” said Thornton. “I’ve got to be well-rounded.
“Obviously we’re winning, which is nice, but there’s always things that I can improve personally, my technique, my assignments and things like that. I’m just looking forward to each and every day getting better at the little things.”