By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
Near the end of a joyous conference call with local media late Friday night, Hugh Thornton was asked what comes to his mind when he hears the words Indianapolis Colts.
“I think of champions,” the former Illinois offensive lineman said without hesitation. “World champions.”
Yes, it appears the Colts’ third-round draft pick is going to fit in just fine around a building the team has plastered with images of the Lombardi Trophy this offseason.
Thornton was just the second player selected by Indianapolis in the 2013 draft, 62 spots after the Colts took Florida State pass rusher Bjoern Werner in the first round Thursday night.
Head coach Chuck Pagano has emphasized two things above all else since he took over in January 2012: Running the football and stopping the run.
General manager Ryan Grigson signed 11 free agents in the past two months, with many moves focused on improving Indianapolis’ run defense.
Thornton, who played every offensive line position except center as a four-year starter for the Illini, is one of the few additions aimed at improving the rushing offense.
The 6-foot-3, 320-pounder is capable of being a Week 1 starter at guard according to NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. And Pagano made it clear what role Thornton is expected to play.
“He’s big physically,” Pagano said. “He’s got nasty written all over him. We talk about running the football and stopping the run, this guy is really going to help our quarterback. He’s going to move people. He’s going to change the line of scrimmage for us. He’s going to be able to help us run the football.”
Thornton already has close ties to the Colts coaching staff.
Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert, who was promoted this offseason after one year as the assistant to Harold Goodwin, recruited Thornton to Illinois and coached him for his first three seasons with the Illini.
The two remain so close that Gilbert was the man who put Thornton threw his paces during his pro day workout last month.
“I think that’s just God looking out, putting me in the right position,” Thornton said of reuniting with Gilbert. “I have a great relationship with Coach Gilbert, and I’m excited to work with him in the future.”
Grigson was excited to make the reunion happen.
He said Thornton was the team’s target from the moment he woke up Thursday morning. The Colts have had a high grade on the guard since last August, and the fact Thornton acquitted himself well as a left tackle last season did nothing to change that opinion.
Indianapolis learned how important that kind of versatility can be last year when its projected starting five played together along the offensive line just four times in 17 games including the playoffs.
Thornton is the third player added to that offensive mix this offseason -- joining free agent signings right tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Donald Thomas -- and all three of them could be starters.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Colts -- who have four picks in today’s final four rounds -- are done tinkering with the line.
“You know we feel pretty good,” Grigson said about the moves already made. “We have a lot of capable players. But just like Coach and I, from Day 1, we want to create a cauldron of competition. You know if we’re going to be champions here and win championships, true champions, they like that type of environment. They want the cream to rise to the top. They welcome that. We feel like we have guys that have that mindset, and you can never have enough good big men.”
Pagano later added that names on the depth chart this time of year are written in pencil, not ink.
That philosophy is fine with Thornton, who makes no effort to hide the fact he’s looking forward to moving back to guard and getting back on the football field.
“I love to play football,” he said. “I love learning the game. Being a Colt is so crazy. I’ve got a lot of family from Ohio so I’ll have a lot of my support system at games. I’m an overcomer. I’ve overcome a lot of adversity, and I’m going to give nothing but the best to the organization.”