After the end of a 33-year streak of having at least one player drafted in the NFL Draft, Virginia Football is attempting to put together another streak. Two UVA players were drafted last year, and there’s at least one going this year.
That player is, of course, defensive back Juan Thornhill. He is listed at DB because he’s played both CB and S in his UVA career, but also because he could truly play both in the NFL.
Juan finished his career with 13 interceptions, 39 passes defensed, and 208 tackles. That’s impressive, especially since he didn’t play much as a freshman. He also had 12 tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and blocked a PAT. The 13 INTs are tied for 6th all-time at Virginia. Thornhill’s senior year was fantastic as he led the team with 98 tackles and was sixth with 4.5 TFLs. He also grabbed six INTs, which tied for 3rd in the nation (and in the ACC).
As a DB, Thornhill’s strength is obvious in pass coverage. But he’s a willing and able run defender as well.
This is perfect coverage of an option play. Thornhill steps into the QB’s path, forcing the pitch. Then he’s able to get to the RB and make the tackle for loss. This is the kind of play you expect from an OLB, not a DB. Yes, Ryan Finley isn’t the quickest of QBs, but he is an NFL caliber QB and this is the type of play Thornhill might encounter in the NFL.
Above, you can see Thornhill playing centerfield against the deep ball. This play is a Cover-2 from Virginia and he has responsibilities deep on his side of the field. It’s hard to tell from this video, but when the inside WR breaks off his route, Thornhill stays with the deep man. There’s good coverage over the top from the CB, so he stays inside the man and comes up with the pick. This is picture perfect from Thornhill.
It should also be noted that Juan was a High School QB and he can do some damage with the ball in his hands. Could he get a shot returning kicks in the NFL? Maybe.
Thornhill’s performance at the NFL Combine catapulted him into the national NFL Draft discussion. He ran a 4.42 40, which tied for 9th fastest among DBs. His vertical jump of 44” was the best of all players at the combine. And his 11’9” broad jump was not only tied for the best of the combine, it was tied for the second best of all time. Juan didn’t perform any other drills at the combine, but he had a 4.2 second 20-yard shuttle and a 6.86 second three cone drill at the UVA Pro Day. (Juan injured his hamstring running the 40 and didn’t do any more drills after that.)
Obviously, those workout results are very good. The speed and explosiveness are off the charts, but the change-of-direction numbers aren’t nearly as good. Because of that, Thornhill is seen as a safety in the NFL, rather than a CB. Though most NFL teams run a lot of Cover-2 zones, CBs still need to have man cover skills and his are only average. However, average cover skills for a CB are pretty good for a safety. Thornhill’s ability to cover ground in the deep secondary as well as play up against the run and defend TEs over the middle makes him an ideal NFL safety.
The 2019 NFL Draft kicks off tonight at 8pm on ABC.