This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.
Headline: A humble leader
Nov. 10, 2004
By Ed Odeven
Many football players would brag about making a game-high 17 tackles. That’s just not Jeremy Thornburg’s style.
A soft-spoken, hard-hitting strong safety, Thornburg is driven to play what he calls “the perfect football game.” His 17-tackle outing against the Montana Grizzlies last Saturday wasn’t perfect.
Here’s the Northern Arizona senior’s explanation:
“I had 22 chances to make tackles, and I missed five.”
The personal assessment continues.
“After the Montana game, people came up to me like, ‘Great job, 17 tackles.’ But I was disappointed because I missed five tackles, you know,” he added. “That was my season high in tackles and missed tackles.”
In a season of ups and downs, Thornburg has been the steady anchor for the Lumberjack secondary. He leads the team with 76 tackles (37 solo stops), has broken up six passes, forced three fumbles and made three sacks.
All-conference-type numbers are nice, but victories are much more important to a consummate competitor like Thornburg.
“I think we’re not playing up to our standards at all,” he said after Tuesday’s practice at the Skydome. “We should be giving up 17 points or less a game. That’s our team goal. We’re not doing that at all.”
Opponents are scoring 27.2 points per game against the 4-5 Jacks, who travel to Idaho State for their final Big Sky Conference game of the season Saturday.
In recent weeks, the Lumberjack defense has felt the sting of losing three starters — linebackers Bruce Branch and Ian Gunderman and cornerback Shannon Butler — for the season. In their absence, Thornburg has picked up the slack — on the field and in the leadership department.
He’s had to do a lot more, right? a reporter asked linebacker Sean Sovacool.
“He can handle that, though. He’s a great player,” Sovacool said. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever played with. He’s real active, real energetic, real enthusiastic. I love to watch ‘Burg play and play with him.”
“He’s kind of the guy that brings our secondary together,” added sophomore free safety Jeffrey Wheeler. “He’s also the leader, showing by example, the way he plays on the field and the way he acts off the field. He’s just an all-around great guy.”
Play after play, you’ll see Thornburg’s versatility and instincts on display. He’ll blitz the quarterback on one play, make a diving pass deflection on the next, and follow that up with a drive-the-ballcarrier-back-to-the-line tackle.
In other words, Thornburg possesses the ideal physical qualities to be a strong safety.
“(At that position) you just have to have the speed of a corner and the tenacity of a linebacker and that’s hard to find,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said.
NAU found their man in Cathedral City, Calif., where Thornburg lettered three years in football, two in basketball and four in track before graduating in 2000. He also received attention from San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah.
Each year, Thornburg’s numbers — and productivity — have improved. He played in 10 games as a freshman in 2000 and made 10 tackles. He became the starter the next year and collected 52 tackles. After sitting out the 2002 season with a shoulder injury, he returned to the starting lineup last year and made 92 stops, picked off four passes and earned honorable mention all-Big Sky accolades.
In his spare time, the liberal studies major has become one of the Big Sky’s best hurdlers, sprinters and jumpers (he qualified for the 2003 and ’04 NCAA West Regional Championships in the long jump, and was a member of the ’03 Big Sky-winning 4×400-meter outdoor relay unit).
“I think Jeremy has gone through a lot in his experience here,” Souers said. “I think he’s matured a bunch. He’s always been a talented athlete. As talented as he is, you never sense an ego problem. … He’s been a team guy from Day One.
“He’s definitely one of those ‘quiet killers.’ … And I don’t mean to make light of murder or anything like that at all, but he’s a guy you won’t hear coming and when he blitzes and when he covers with support on the run and on special teams (look out).”
When the season concludes, the 6-foot, 190-pound Thornburg will hit the weight room and begin training with the Lumberjack track and field squad, preparing for an opportunity to play football professionally.
“I think track will help me make it to the next level,” he said. “I’ve heard some things from coaches that the scouts are interested in me.
“It doesn’t matter where I play,” was how Thornburg described his post-NAU aspirations. “I just want to play football.”
Thornburg said being a part of NAU’s upset of No. 1 McNeese State in the playoffs last year and an exciting comeback triumph over Portland State in October were two of his favorite games. Another personal favorite: he showed his pure athleticism against Portland State, making a 42-yard reception in the first half, thanks to a well-placed ball by Philo Sanchez, a running back.
Since being an all-conference linebacker/receiver at Cathedral City High, Thornburg has not played many snaps on offense. He’s lined up for a few plays there this season, which, naturally, got him thinking about what might’ve been.
“I feel that if I ever did play offense in the Big Sky I could’ve been an all-Big Sky receiver,” he said.
“My freshman year, I was happy playing defense, and as time goes on you miss the other side of the ball. If I was playing offense, I’d probably be saying the opposite.”
Next year, the Lumberjacks will miss having Thornburg in the lineup. But they are preparing for the future, with freshman Greg Laybourn waiting in the wings.
“I think having Jeremy around, he’s just been the perfect leader by example to show me how things are done,” Laybourn said. “He was in a similar situation to what I’m in now. He came in and played a little bit his freshman year and then started his sophomore year, and that’s what I’m hoping to do.
“Hopefully I can duplicate the aggressive style that he plays.”
And after his playing days are over, Thornburg hopes he’s left a legacy for NAU fans and players.
“I think they’ll say they like the way I played because I like playing hard every play, sprinting to the ball and using my speed,” he said. “I like getting big hits occasionally.”
What do those characteristics add up to?
“He’s just a great football player,” Souers concluded.
You just won’t hear those words coming out of Thornburg’s mouth.