Tom O'Brien has fielded plenty of questions about NC State's running back position during the first three weeks of the season. In nearly every answer, O'Brien has said he's wanted someone to step up and take hold of the position.
On Saturday, freshman running back Shadrach Thornton did just that, running for 145 yards on 21 carries and scoring two touchdowns in his college debut. He also hauled in four receptions for 26 yards, filling inleading the Wolfpack to a 52-14 win over The Citadel.
Thornton wasn't a name many folks knew heading into the game. In fact, he was nowhere to be found on NC State's depth chart. But with Mustafa Greene suspended and Tony Creecy and James Washington nursing injuries, Thornton, who would have likely redshirted if not for Saturday night's circumstances, found himself in a position he had only "dreamed" about.
Thornton is the first NC State running back to break the 100-yard mark this season and the first Wolfpack freshman to gain at least 100 yards since Andre Brown tallied 248 against Southern Mississippi in 2005. He's also the first NC State freshman to go over the century mark in his first collegiate game since 1981, when Joe McIntosh tallied 131 yards against the Richmond Spiders.
And while Thornton's effort Saturday won't guarantee him anything moving forward in the "running back by committee" NC State backfield, it's perhaps a good example of exactly what O'Brien has been looking for all season.
"He is a good running back. By the fourth scrimmage, you could see that he can really run the football," O'Brien said. "But let's not give him the Heisman Trophy yet."
Heisman Trophy or not, Thornton's north-south, foot in the ground approach is one that NC State's running game desperately needed on a night when the Wolfpack were hoping to keep The Citadel's offense off the field as much as possible.
Thornton, a standout at Liberty County High School (GA) a year ago, seemed largely unfazed by the attention following his breakout effort and credited his offensive line and quarterback Mike Glennon for his success.
"They didn't ask me to do anything but go out there and play football," he said. "I'm thankful I have a good team and strong offensive linemen. They made the way for me tonight."
The offensive line also paved the way for several other NC State running backs, as the Wolfpack tallied 282 rushing yards on 51 rushing attempts. Brandon Barnes, normally fourth on the depth chart, backed up Thornton and finished with 48 yards on 8 carries with one touchdown - a 6-yard scamper on the first play of the fourth quarter.
When State emptied its bench in the final frame, Milton Hall and Jonathan Fisher stepped in, combining for 78 yards on 9 carries. The team total was the highest since that Southern Miss game in 2005, when Brown's 248 yards were part of 297 total rushing yards.
In his post game press conference, O'Brien was quick to note that ongoing injuries and suspensions may put Thornton in the same spot next week when the Wolfpack hit the road for their first conference game against Miami.
"When we decided to play Shadrach, he's going to a part of the rotation moving forward," O'Brien said. "He showed today that he can get in there and play, so we'll see. Who knows what the health is going to be of anybody."
Thornton gave the company line answer about his role moving forward, but before he mentioned the experience in front of him at the position, he responded with one word when asked whether he had earned a spot in the rotation.
"Possibly," he said. "I'm a competitor, and that's what football is about. If I'm not on the field I'm competing to get them better. Competition breeds success."