True freshman Shadrach Thornton had to wait for his turn in the NC State backfield. It was expected to come next year after a redshirt campaign, with four older, experienced teammates populating the depth chart at the beginning of the season.
However, the rookie got his chance in the fourth game of the campaign against The Citadel and rushed for 145 yards with two scores — the school's finest rushing debut since at least 1981, when Joe McIntosh recorded 131 against Richmond.
Thornton came off the bench in the next six games and averaged under 50 yards per contest. Then, he exploded for 110 yards against Wake Forest and earned a starting role in the last two games of the season. He rushed for 114 yards against Clemson, and then closed with a 105-yard effort against Boston College, giving him the landmark total on the ground in each of State's final three contests. He also recorded 114 yards receiving during that stretch.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder finished the year with a team-best 655 rushing yards, despite missing the first three games of the campaign and starting just a trio of contests. He ranked fifth in the ACC with an average of 72.8 yards per game, and became the first Pack back since T.A. McLendon in 2002 to hit the 100-yard mark in at least four different contests. McLendon was also the last State rusher to hit triple digits on the ground in three straight games, and Thornton finished with 888 all-purpose yards, to go along with four touchdowns.
Thornton is already tied for fourth among rookie running backs with a quartet of 100-yard outings, and The Wolfpacker's unofficial count had him being tackled for a loss just five times in his 142 totes, which is just 12 attempts shy of tying Ray Robinson for the third-most carries ever by a first-year rusher.
The youngster will receive his final chance to improve his debut numbers at the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 31 against Vanderbilt. He wants to end his memorable rookie year as strongly as he started it on Sept. 22.
"It's my first bowl experience in the first year I'm here," he said. "I'm ecstatic. I'm just ready to go out there and perform."
He wants to send the seniors and prior coaching staff off on the right note, and also start off the Dave Doeren era with a strong foundation in this year's postseason contest.
"We're going to lose a few key starters from the senior class, so this game will be key to win for our seniors and give us momentum going into the next season," Thornton explained. "It's kind of going to foreshadow the performance we plan to have in the future. We just have to go out there and execute.
"We want to win for ourselves. We want to win it for the seniors and we want to win it to show that we're a strong program, regardless of our record or what we did this season. We just want to go out and capitalize. We've got another chance against an SEC school, and we want to prove how tough and how effective we can be on the field."
Although Thornton did not play in the season opener against Tennessee, he is looking forward to being able to show off his skills against an SEC squad.
"It's perceived that the SEC is this big, bad wolf," he noted. "It's an SEC-ACC matchup, and we just want to take it full-steam ahead.
"Every year you have an SEC team in the national championship, it's like whoever wins the SEC Championship is going to the national championship because they feel like it's the strongest conference. We just want to go out and perform, show that the ACC can compete, too."
Needless to say, the running back is a crucial part of the Pack going forward, and he's excited about what the future holds under Doeren, who has run a spread offense in his two years as the head coach at Northern Illinois. Thornton would be right at home in that kind of system.
"I ran spread in high school, so I would be right at home," he said. "Pro-style was actually different for me — we ran a little pro in high school — but we were mainly a spread team.
"I like the spacing because the offensive line has two-and-a-half foot splits, so the d-line is already spread out. Before pre-snap reads, before you even run the ball, you already see the hole that you can hit. The thing with a spread offense is it's more of a zone read, so you can hit 'A' gap, 'B' gap or backside 'D' gap, wherever the hole is. Because the lanes are already open, it's easier for the o-line to get in there and block, pull and make the type of reads they need to make. I like the spread. It's what I'm accustomed to, so I guess you could say it fits [his running style]."