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Countdown to UVA Football: #21 Juan Thornhill is playing more as cornerback than safety

Not highly recruited, Thornhill could be a gem for Virginia.

Virginia Media Relations

Position: S
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 190
Year: Sophomore
Hometown: Altavista, Va

Juan Thornhill didn’t have a single offer from anybody other than Virginia. He comes from the very small town of Altavista in central Virginia, just outside Lynchburg, where there probably weren’t a lot of scouts from the big schools coming out. Their loss, though, is Virginia’s gain. Thornhill was the first commitment in the 2015 class, committing early in his junior year (his early commitment may also be why he didn’t receive any other offers).

Thornhill was all-state at both QB and FS, while also returning kicks. The state player of the year and the defensive player of the year, Thornhill led his team to back-to-back state titles. He also led his team to back-to-back state titles in basketball. Maybe it’s a small school in a small town, but Juan Thornhill is big time.

Thornhill played as a true freshman last year, seeing time on special teams in nine games. He was backing up Quin Blanding, so it is not surprising that he didn’t get in for defense. Nothing to be ashamed of there. He performed well on special teams, including recovering an attempted onsides kick from Duke. He had 2 solo tackles.

Though Thornhill was recruited as a safety, is listed as a safety, and was on the depth chart last year as a safety, he’s been working at CB during camp. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, since Thornhill is undersized for a safety. He’s a willing participant in run support, but he just doesn’t have the bulk to bring down RBs over and over again. Right now, his potential at CB is greater, because he’s a smart player who reads the game well and has great instincts. He may not have the pure speed for man-to-man coverage against quicker WRs, but he’s tall and he can get up with the bigger WRs he’ll face. Check out this highlight reel from the VHSL Basketball Championship game. Yeah, Thornhill isn’t going to get beat on too many jump balls.

And here is Thornhill’s football highlight video:

The first thing you notice is what a big hitter he is. You can tell that from just the first highlight. We don’t see him in man coverage, because he’s playing FS, so it is tough to judge how he might do in that scenario. Though with the lateral quickness we see from him, he may be a natural fit there. In a zone heavy scheme, where he can play with the body facing the QB more often than not, he seems like a perfect fit at CB. He's quick to diagnose the play, trusts his instincts, and makes great breaks on the ball. Watch him track down a deep pass from halfway across the field. And once he gets there, he has good hands and is able to come down with the INT.

There’s also a lot of offensive highlights strewn in here as well as some kick returns. What they show is a guy who is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands. He may not have great top end speed, but he just seems to have a feel for making people miss and that is something that can’t be taught.

Moving Juan to CB may be a matter of getting a talented kid on the field wherever he'll fit. Right now, he may not be big enough to play in the already-loaded S position, but if he fills out a bit, getting up to maybe 210 or so, he could move back to FS. He could also probably play WR if he wanted to, but with questionable throwing mechanics, he’s not a college-level QB. He may also get a chance to return some kicks for the Hoos at some point. Those moves won't all work in college, where defenders are bigger and quicker. But you heard it here first, whether it’s an INT return or a kick return, Thornhill will score a TD for the Hoos before he’s done.