Chiefs

Rookie safety Juan Thornhill’s development is ‘right on track,’ Spagnuolo says

Chiefs Camp Report: Thornhill’s big day and Williams returns to practice

Kansas City Star Chiefs beat reporter, Brooke Pryor gives you all the latest news from the team's training camp in St. Joseph. Juan Thornhill had a big day and Damien Williams returned to practice.
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Kansas City Star Chiefs beat reporter, Brooke Pryor gives you all the latest news from the team's training camp in St. Joseph. Juan Thornhill had a big day and Damien Williams returned to practice.

Midway through Wednesday’s practice, rookie safety Juan Thornhill dove to his left, picking off a Patrick Mahomes pass intended for Tyreek Hill before it could hit the ground.

It was the latest example of ballhawking abilities that convinced the Chiefs to select Thornhill in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Later this week, Thornhill will have his first opportunity to go against another quarterback as the Chiefs play the Cincinnati Bengals in their first preseason game Saturday, but the practice he’s put in against the reigning NFL MVP and backup Chad Henne in St. Joseph will pay dividends.

“If he can do well against this guy out here, No. 15, he’ll be in good shape,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said.

Spagnuolo doesn’t typically start rookies, but he has been impressed with Thornhill’s development since he was drafted in May.

“I think he’s right on track,” Spagnuolo said. “There were a couple things here today the game might be a little fast right now, but that’s to be expected. That’s why you’ve got to get in some game competition and get up to speed with it. But I think he’ll be fine.”

Thornhill, who had 13 interceptions during his four-year collegiate career at Virginia, drew the tough task of guarding Hill throughout Wednesday morning’s practice. And though Hill beat him sometimes, more often than not, Thornhill was just a step or two behind the speedy wide receiver. Before the interception, Thornhill was playing tight defense on Hill, forcing him to make a contested catch. Thornhill brought him down a step after Hill caught the ball.

“Juan might surprise a lot of people when he gets to play on the field,” cornerback Charvarius Ward said.

Thornhill played a true free safety position with the first string defense in most of the team drills, but he was often on the field as a part of a three-safety set with Daniel Sorensen and Tyrann Mathieu. Sorensen and Mathieu still appear to be the top two safeties, but Thornhill is gaining ground with each practice.

And though it hasn’t happened frequently, Spagnuolo has started a rookie in the past. In 2009, Spagnuolo started second-round pick James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker.

“I said look, he’s got to earn his stripes up there,” Spagnuolo said. “But it got to the end of preseason and it was quite evident that he was the guy that could run the show.”

As a rookie, Thornhill will benefit from practicing alongside veterans like Mathieu — especially as he fine-tunes his natural instincts to the NFL game.

“The most instinctive guy on that end is Tyrann Mathieu,” Spagnuolo said. “If you watch him, he does things instinctively. I think Juan has that on the deep end. Right now, he’s doing a little bit more thinking than he is just playing and that’s just because he’s learning the system.

“But I’m hoping that the natural instincts come out when he’s got the scheme down pat.”

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At practice

A number of injured players returned to practice on Wednesday. RB Damien Williams (hamstring), WR Tyreek Hill (quad contusion), LB Damien Wilson (knee) and S Jordan Lucas (hamstring) were all back, while DE Frank Clark (wrist), DE Alex Okafor (hip), DE Emmanuel Ogbah (oblique) and WR Gehrig Dieter (back spasms) were all out.

With defensive ends Okafor, Clark and Ogbah all missing practice, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks continued to take the bulk of their reps with the first-team defense. Kpassagnon took most of his snaps from the left defensive end position while Speaks was on the right.

Spagnuolo said Kendall Fuller has been practicing through a “bit of a tweak” and mentioned rookie Rashad Fenton and safety Tyrann Mathieu were also working out in the nickelback spot to give the position depth, should it be necessary.

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Marcus Kemp again made the most of his extra reps with wide receiver Gehrig Dieter’s extended absence caused by back spasms. Kemp made a juggling catch in the first 11-on-11 period and rotated in with the first-team offense through the team period.

Damien Williams returned from a hamstring injury that’s kept him out all but one day of training camp. While Carlos Hyde took first team reps through the first two 11-on-11 periods, Williams got in the final team period for situational work near the goal line. On his first snap, Williams caught a pass on the sideline as he tip-toed out of bounds. He also caught a pass in the flat a few plays later, juked his defender and scored a touchdown.

The final team period lasted 18 plays, by far the longest of camp. Most of the time, the first team runs through less than 10 plays before rotating to the second team. It seemed as though coach Andy Reid was making the most of the cooler weather, brought on by heavy storms that rolled through St. Joseph on Wednesday morning.

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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