ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia redshirt junior defensive lineman Mike Thornton, all 6-foot-1 and 302 pounds of him, grew up as the biggest kid in his peer group.
Which is why being "undersized" now always brings a smile.
Thornton, who is projected to start at the nose position in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, spent the past two seasons behind John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers on the depth chart. The 6-3 Jenkins and the 6-6 Geathers each weighed more than 350 pounds, leaving Thornton petite by comparison.
"I couldn't imagine being 350," a smiling Thornton said earlier this month.
Thornton appeared in all 14 games last season, which included a role on special teams, but did not record a tackle. The nose position doesn't lend its itself to huge statistical outings, instead attracting occasional double teams so defensive ends and linebackers can rack up the numbers.
Jenkins and Gathers could draw such attention, and Thornton believes he can do the same.
"I can't wait to prove to these people that you don't have to be that big to play this position," he said. "I can't wait, and I feel like Coach Grantham is going to put me in the right position to make plays. I'm just going to do what I can."
Thornton was among Rivals.com's and Scout.com's top 20 defensive tackle prospects when he signed with the Bulldogs in 2010, right after Grantham was hired from the Dallas Cowboys to replace Willie Martinez. Grantham visited with Thornton and talked to him about Jay Ratliffe, who had played at Auburn and was wreaking havoc for the Cowboys while weighing around 295 pounds.
That conversation helped seal the deal for Thornton.
"I was always a Jay Ratliffe fan when he was at Auburn," Thornton said. "He was the player who got me believing that I could play in this league. Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens were two more when they played here, because we're all about the same size and body type."
Georgia's projected starting front has Thornton between senior end Garrison Smith and redshirt sophomore end Sterling Bailey. Behind Thornton are newcomers Chris Mayes and John Atkins, each in excess of 320 pounds.
Mayes has missed the last several workouts with a concussion.
There are a lot of new faces for new defensive line coach Chris Wilson, which also leaves Grantham with a unique challenge entering his fourth season.
"We're not going to change what we're going to do," Grantham said. "Mike is a guy who's got a skill set, and his initial quickness is very good, and so is his sense of direction. Guys like that can be a change-of-pace guy for you.
"Jay Ratliffe was a different style of nose than big John Jenkins, and he created some plays in his own way. You're going to play to your skill set of your players up front."
The Bulldogs held a 90-minute kicking scrimmage Monday at Sanford Stadium before partaking in the annual watermelon cutting that traditionally ends the camp portion of August practices.
Monday also was the first day of fall-semester classes. The team will take today off.
Head coach Mark Richt said there is a healthy competition for the deep-snapping role between redshirt sophomore Nathan Theus and freshman Trent Frix. Theus is the older brother of right tackle John Theus, while Frix is from Calhoun and is the younger brother of Ty Frix, who snapped for the Bulldogs from 2009 through last season.
"Competing for this job has brought the best out in both of them," Richt said.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...