April 22, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Virginia High School League divides its members by enrollment, with the smallest schools grouped together in the 1A classification.

During Juan Thornhill’s high school years, Altavista dominated 1A in boys basketball and football, winning three state titles in the former sport and two in the latter. Even so, some questioned whether Thornhill would be able to thrive on the University of Virginia football team.

“Coming out of high school, I knew when I got here I wasn’t going to have a lot of respect, because I came from a small 1A school,” Thornhill said. “Not many people [believed in] me. They were thinking, `He doesn’t play against anybody.’ So I came in with the mentality that I have to prove myself and prove that I can play with these guys.”

He didn’t need much time to win over the Cavaliers’ new coaching staff. A 6-1, 200-pound rising sophomore, Thornhill was moved from safety to cornerback early in spring practice this year, and he’s stayed there. He’s now part of the first-team defense, alongside cornerback Tim Harris and safeties Kelvin Rainey and Quin Blanding in the secondary.

Fans can check out Thornhill and the rest of the team at the Spring Football Festival on Saturday at Scott Stadium.

After practice Thursday, head coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked about Thornhill’s move to cornerback. Mendenhall coordinates UVA’s defense, along with Nick Howell, who also oversees the secondary.

“Coach Howell watched everything and I watched everything that Juan did in the offseason,” Mendenhall said. “Juan is big and he’s fast and he was trying really, really hard. And as we started practice, he’s big and he’s fast and he tries really hard. And then as practice kept going, he’s big and he’s fast and he tries really hard.

“I like big, fast guys that try hard, and that’s what he keeps doing, so that’s why he’s playing.”

One day at practice, Thornhill recalled Wednesday, “Coach Howell just said to me, `Juan, get out there and play one-on-one at corner,’ just to see how I would do without being coached or anything. And I guess he liked what I was doing at corner, and he just kept me out there, because he could see that I’m getting comfortable with the position.”

As a true freshman in 2015, the Wahoos’ final season under Mendenhall’s predecessor, Mike London, Thornhill played in nine games, made two tackles and recovered an onside kick against Duke.

Mendenhall, who spent the past 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach, took over at UVA in December. Most of his BYU staff, including Howell, followed Mendenhall from Provo, Utah, to Charlottesville.

“I love all of my new coaches,” Thornhill said. “They’ve brought us closer than we used to be, and we’re more like family now, and I really love it.”

Virginia’s new director of football performance, Frank Wintrich, put Thornhill and his teammates through a demanding nine-week strength and conditioning program before spring practice started.

“It was a big change,” Thornhill said. “I didn’t think it was going to be that hard. It was pretty tough on us. It made us mentally strong. When it was raining or it was cold, we were thinking we’d go into the indoor facility, but [Wintrich] actually made us stay outdoors. I think it’s preparing us for the season, to get ready for any type of climate and be ready to play through anything.”

Thornhill’s favorite sport is football, but he still plays basketball at the Aquatic and Fitness Center whenever his schedule permits.

“It’s always easier to stay in shape when you’re playing games and running,” he said.

He also gets to play hoops from time to time during football practice. In one end zone in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility is a regulation basketball goal, and Howell likes to have his defensive backs play one-on-one to hone their coverage skills.

On the first day of spring practice, Thornhill, in cleats, backed down his defender and then soared for an emphatic slam.

“Yes, I’ve seen him do that,” Blanding said, smiling.

If Thornhill excels for the Cavaliers’ football team, he won’t be the first player from a small high school in this state to do so. His predecessors at Virginia included Thomas Jones (Powell Valley High), Heath Miller (Honaker), Cedric Peerman (William Campbell) and Vic Hall (Gretna).

Altavista is a small town about 90 miles southwest of Charlottesville. In high school, Thornhill played safety and quarterback in football. In hoops, he was a high-flying guard whose highlight-reel dunks attracted the attention of national media outlets, including ESPN, which featured Thornhill in a SportsCenter clip.

When he was a sophomore, Thornhill said, Radford offered him a basketball scholarship. In November 2013, the fall of his junior year, UVA offered him a football scholarship, and Thornhill saw no need to delay his decision.

“I was always a Virginia fan when I was younger,” he said, “so when Coach London gave me the call, I committed I think two days after he offered.”

Thornhill’s fellow defensive backs marvel at the ease with which he’s made the transition to cornerback.

“It’s a big change for him, but he’s stepped his game up a lot, and he’s proved himself to a lot of us,” Blanding said. “He’s smart, he’s long, he’s rangy, he’s fast. He’s just very athletic.”

Rainey said: “It’s a big challenge, actually, but he’s handled it perfectly. We all knew he was athletic and had good hands. It just worked out for the best. I never thought he’d be a corner, and it seemed kind of crazy when they first moved him down there, but he’s natural. He’s an athletic guy.”

When he arrived at UVA, Rainey said, he worked at cornerback.

“Your confidence at all times has to be up high,” Rainey said. “It’s the hardest position to play, and if you don’t come in with confidence, you’re not going to be in the right mindset.

“You’re going to get beat. You have to have a short memory, and Juan’s handled it perfectly.”

Thornhill said he’ll have a large cheering section of family members Saturday at Scott Stadium. Their allegiance is clear, but, Thornhill admits, there are other Altavista residents who cheer for Virginia’s arch-rival.

“Hopefully I can change some of those Virginia Tech fans over to Virginia fans,” he said, smiling.

THAT’S A WRAP: The football portion of Virginia’s Spring Football Festival will consist of the team’s 15th practice of the spring, starting at 4:15 p.m. The players will be full pads, as they were when they practiced at the stadium last weekend.

The 11-on-11 segments will be “live,” Mendenhall said, which means players will tackle to the ground.

“The only player that won’t be live is the quarterback,” Mendenhall said. “He’ll be wearing a different jersey, and I’ll handle the whistle on him.”

The Cavaliers went live last weekend for the first time this spring.

“I like tackling on the grass only,” Mendenhall said, “and so the stadium is in great shape, and we saw last Saturday that it was a really nice change for us. But also it’s nice to see some live team work. I don’t need to see a lot, but seeing some just gives you a little bit better picture as to who can finish plays and tackle to the ground. It doesn’t change my opinion a lot, but it gives you a slightly better idea.”

SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY: Starting at 2 p.m. Saturday, game-worn UVA football jerseys and helmets will be sold at the open end of Scott Stadium.

Helmets are $100 and jerseys $50. Also available will be game-worn baseball jerseys ($50) and batting helmets ($35), and game-worn men’s lacrosse helmets ($75), game jerseys ($50) and game shorts ($20), as well as cheer uniforms ($35) and pom poms ($10).

All items will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Cash and credit cards will be accepted, but no checks.

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