MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Jalen Thornton left his home in Cincinnati to take the next step in his football career at West Virginia University four years ago, but his dad is still with him pretty much anywhere he walks in the Milan Puskar Team Center.
“He’s everywhere,” Thornton said. “In the hallway. In the position room, he’s right behind me.”
Within the walls of the WVU football facility – and in Morgantown more generally – John Thornton is a legend. The WVU Sports Hall of Famer was one of the faces of the Mountaineers’ defense towards the end of the Don Nehlen era in the late-90s before embarking on a lucrative 10-year NFL career with the Tennessee Titans and the Cincinnati Bengals as a defensive lineman.
In four seasons with the Mountaineers, the senior Thornton logged 162 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and six passes broken up. He started 41 consecutive games and earned two All-Big East nods.
Fulfilling his father’s legacy has been one of the most difficult parts of redshirt junior defensive tackle’s five-year career at WVU, even more so than taking a redshirt year, enduring strength coach Mike Joseph’s workouts and the numbness of a stretch of mediocre seasons.
“I made it way too hard on myself in the beginning of my career,” Jalen said. “It took a long time for me to get past that, and now that I’m just being the best version of myself. That’s pretty good, you know?
“I appreciate everything that [my father has] done for me, my family, for the state of West Virginia, for this program. Football is what he and I bond over, and that’s what brings us closer together. I’m really appreciative of that.”
October and the beginning of November acted as a coming-out party of sorts for the redshirt junior. He’s recorded two multi-tackle games over the last six weeks, and he has solidified himself as a key rotational piece along the WVU defensive line, one that is exceeding expectations this season after losing multiple starters.
“This guy is playing the best football of his career, [both on] special teams and on defense, and that’s Jalen Thornton,” head coach Neal Brown said. “Back-to-back weeks [he] has made plays on the d-line.”
Make it three-straight weeks, as those words from Brown came after the win over BYU and before Thornton’s best game, statistically, as a Mountaineer: a three-tackle, one-sack (two tackles-for-loss) performance at Oklahoma last weekend. The sack was the first full one of his collegiate career.
His playing time looks to be increasing. Not because of injuries or midseason departures, but because something finally appears to be clicking.
Less than a year ago, playing football as a career didn’t seem like a possibility for Thornton. His production was nowhere near the same as his father’s through four years. An injury also slowed down what should’ve been a breakout year. For someone who was constantly compared to his dad, his career trajectory looked to be a lot different despite it being similar for so long.
John Thornton – who is now an NFL agent for Roc Nation Sports – reminded him of the endless professional opportunities in sports outside of suiting up in uniform. Defensive line coach Andrew Jackson also offered some simple, necessary advice.
“[Coach Jackson] was like, ‘You don’t have to be your dad…You just have to be the best version of you. You just have to be the best Jalen Thornton that you can be,'” Jalen said.
That advice resonated for Thornton this offseason, and he’ll be the first to say that it’s working out. It was the first step of a mentality change that is proving useful in his fifth year of college ball.
“Going into this last season, I really just put my all into it saying [that] regardless of what happens,” he said. “I’m going to leave it all out there and put my faith in God that no matter what happens,” Jalen said. “Instead of saying, ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why is this happening to me?,’ this is what’s supposed to happen, and this is all part of his plan for me. I’ll take time to reflect on that as well. I just really want to finish this the right way.”
Thornton’s help across the defensive line is definitely impactful too. Splitting snaps with veteran defensive tackle Eddie Vesterinen keeps both players fresh when their names are called. The emergence of redshirt freshman Asani Redwood and redshirt sophomore Hammond Russell IV have only helped the unit’s overall depth.
“Playing with this team has been great, especially the guys in that d-line room. I’ve been a part of some really good d-line groups in my time here, but…”
One might naturally think Thornton is about to endorse this year’s defensive line as the best he’s played with in Morgantown. It may even be what he’s thinking, but the words that spill out signal an appreciation that is far more personal than statistical output.
“Those guys resurrected my career, and I love each and every one of them,” he said.