Safety pushing Talib

Thornton has as many picks, half the snaps

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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2007 KU Football Press Conference Nov. 13

It's on now.

When Kansas University cornerback Aqib Talib intercepted his fourth pass of the season Saturday at Oklahoma State, it was reminder to many of the All-America resume Talib continues to build on the football field.

But all it did in Justin Thornton's eyes was tie the two for the team lead.

"We've been battling," said Thornton, a sophomore safety. "Ever since it got close, and ever since I caught up with him, we've been battling. We had a little competition, a little side bet to see who would get number four first. It's pretty fun."

Well, Thornton got his fourth first, picking off a Joe Ganz pass against Nebraska on Nov. 3. But Talib's answer of a Zac Robinson pass on Saturday means the race is back on, a 4-4 tie with at least three games left.

"Just a little side bet," Thornton said with a smile. "Just to keep the competition going."

Talib will get his picks, having intercepted 10 in his last two seasons as KU's shutdown star.

But Thornton is keeping up with Talib in half the opportunities this season. Though Thornton started Saturday because of an undisclosed injury to Patrick Resby, his role in KU's first nine games was as a specialist in passing situations. It has amounted to about 40 snaps a game recently - more than a nickel back, but less than a full-time player.

Whether Resby is back or not, Thornton will play plenty Saturday when No. 4 Kansas (10-0) and Iowa State (3-8) clash at Memorial Stadium.

"My goal is to start. I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to start," Thornton said Tuesday. "But I feel like the time to work for the starting spot is in training camp and the offseason."

So Thornton accepts his job, which likely will go back to a specialist role when Resby is healthy again. After all, Thornton gets plenty of opportunities to make plays, as his four interceptions show. He has 25 tackles and six pass breakups to go with the picks, and his 10 passes defended ties him for sixth in the Big 12 Conference (Talib leads the league with 15).

"He played corner in high school, so he has good cover ability," safeties coach Clint Bowen said of Thornton. "He's a good pass defender guy. He understands zone coverages and route reads. He's an athletic guy and covers some ground."

Kansas has tried to find a way to get Thornton on the field ever since he was signed out of St. Joseph (Mo.) Central High in 2005. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder was recruited as a cornerback, then was moved briefly to wide receiver, back over to defense as a safety, over to receiver again, and finally back to safety.

That versatility means something: He's athletic, with good hands and a nose for the ball.

"Just a good all-around player," Bowen said.

Thornton now is a crucial part to KU's undefeated run, providing the Jayhawk secondary depth that just wasn't there a year ago.

On the side, he has a little interception competition going with one of the country's best defensive backs in Talib. Not bad for a guy with one start this season.

"I feel just as much as part of the defense as the starters. My role is just as big," Thornton said. "With Patrick out last week, I had to come in and play the whole game in a starting role. It didn't feel much different - I've always felt like I was a big part of this defense."