Tyler Thornton had the finest performance of his college football career last Saturday at Georgia Southern.
"Best game I've ever seen him play," Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said of the Bulldogs' 6-3, 244-pound offensive tackle. "Georgia Southern has a very good middle linebacker, and Tyler put him on his back. Often."
Had things gone another way, Thornton might have spent last weekend in an Army uniform instead of shoulder pads and helmets. The redshirt senior from Fayetteville, N.C., put off his commission in the Army by a year in order to play an extra season of football for The Citadel.
Next March, Thornton will report to Fort Lee (Va.) as a second lieutenant to being his training in ordnance, before being assigned to Fort Benning (Ga.) in August.
"My father is a career Army officer," he said, "and that's what I've always wanted to do, as well."
For the first three years of his career at The Citadel, a career in the Army was about all Thornton could look forward to. In the Bulldogs' pass-oriented spread attack, he wasn't quite big enough to hold up in pass protection at tackle, and was mostly a little-used backup, appearing in just five games over two seasons after redshirting as a freshman.
"For three years, I was thinking that I'd never even get to play," he said.
But last year, the Bulldogs switched to the triple-option, and suddenly Thornton found himself in demand as a lighter, nimble-footed tackle who could block linebackers and safeties.
He started all 11 games last season, and Higgins knew it would be important to get Thornton to come back for a fifth season.
"We had some bigger, heavier linemen from our old system, and we were scrambling a bit to get the right guys in the program," Higgins said. "Tyler is an ideal body type for what we are trying to do, so getting his leadership skills and physical skills back for this year was very important."
The Citadel's 13-12 victory over Samford to cap a 3-8 season last year was enough to convince Thornton that he wanted to come back.
"It was a frustrating season," he said. "But in that game, I saw how far we had come and how excited everyone was for next season. I wanted to be a part of that."
But there was matter of his Army contract. After some negotiating with military brass, it was determined that Thornton could not be commissioned as an officer until he graduated from The Citadel. He put off graduation by a semester, and will earn his degree in December.
"I'm excited about it," he said. "I grew up in the Army, and being able to pick up and start over in different places appeals to me. When I've been in one place four or five years, I start to get antsy, because that's usually when we'd move."
Thornton is one of 22 Citadel seniors who will play their final home game Saturday against Samford. And for Thornton, the key word is "play."
"Because we changed to this offense, I've been able to get in there and contribute to the team," he said. "To actually be a part of it on the field, it's been amazing. That's why I'm glad I came back."
--The Citadel's 3 p.m. game with Samford on Saturday will air on ETV's South Carolina Channel, and will also be streamed on ETV's website, www.scetv.org/etvsports. Former Citadel play-by-play announcer Darren Goldwater will work the game for the SoCon TV Network.