INDIANAPOLIS — On his first snap in an NFL game, Hugh Thornton sprinted around the left side of the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line.
Pulling from his right guard position, he was looking for an outside linebacker attempting to set the edge. Sixth-year linebacker Quentin Groves of the Cleveland Browns popped into the open field to oblige.
Thornton, a rookie out of Illinois who missed most of training camp with an ankle injury, thundered into Groves. First he stood the veteran up, stalling his progress. Then he forcefully drove Groves to the ground away from the play.
In that moment, Colts fans got a glimpse of the future.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton considers his linemen to be "skill" players, especially the guards who are routinely asked to pull. He values the kind of athleticism Thornton showed in quickly getting to Groves during Saturday's exhibition victory. And he demands the physicality Thornton delivered to finish his block.
How quickly the future arrives still is in question. But there's no doubt Thornton commanded attention in his debut.
"If you go back and watch the tape, it's pretty impressive what he did on his very first snap out there," head coach Chuck Pagano said. "Again, he played consistent football throughout. He was good in the run game. Got tied up on one pull, ended up on the ground, but other than that, run and pass he did a nice job."
With Mike McGlynn still on the mend with a bone bruise, Thornton will start at right guard Thursday when the Colts finish the preseason in Cincinnati. Unlike many of the other starters, however, Thornton isn't likely to be removed after a series or two.
His ankle was rolled into during the Colts' final mini-camp practice in June. He reported to training camp at Anderson University in late July wearing a boot and watched from the sidelines throughout the team's three-week stay.