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Safety Juan Thornhill missed OTAs Thursday but looms large in the Chiefs’ plans for 2019

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From his experience playing on offense in high school to the team culture he learned at UVA, Thornhill is prepared for his role with the Chiefs

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs had to do without rookie safety Juan Thornhill on Thursday during their OTA session at Arrowhead Stadium’s practice facility. In his media availability, head coach Andy Reid said Thornhill had tweaked a calf muscle, and the team was going to let him sit out until it was healed.

The Chiefs will want Thornhill back as soon as possible. With each passing day, the 6-foot, 210-pound free safety seems more prominent in the team’s plans for 2018. Veteran safety Tyrann Mathieu said on Thursday that Thornhill has demonstrated a nose for the ball during offseason workouts.

“There’s a lot of production at the football,‘ Mathieu remarked. “I think anybody who’s been out here really watching our practices each and every day [can see] he’s getting his hands on the ball. That’s hard to do as a young guy coming in. The game is a lot faster playing against an MVP-type quarterback and a lot of weapons on offense. I think ultimately, he believes in his ability. I think that confidence always puts you above the rest of the group.”

Mathieu’s statement is consistent with Thornhill’s words in an NBC Sports I Am The Prospect video produced before the 2019 draft.

“I’m a ball hawk. When the ball’s in the air, I’m going to be next to the ball — very close to making the play, or I’m going to make the play.“

This had not gone unnoticed before the draft — as our own Kent Swanson noted in our 25 Days of Draftmas profile about Thornhill.

His ball skills are top notch. He reads the quarterback and wide receiver to jump routes and clean up overthrows. When in man coverage, he carries from the hip pocket and uses his length to disrupt the ball.

In a video published by VirginiaSportsTV in October 2016, Thornhill credited this ability to playing wide receiver and quarterback — in addition to safety — during high school in tiny Altavista, Virginia.

“Playing receiver in high school taught me some of the moves that someone might actually put on you. And me playing quarterback [in high school] helps me out a lot, because I know sometimes when the quarterback is going to lead [the receiver], or [be] in a situation where he might make a back-shoulder [throw].“

In high school, Thornhill played on two state champion football teams, and three state champion basketball teams. But he had always set his sights on playing for the University of Virginina — just 90 minutes away in Charlottesville — where he would blossom under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Nick Howell, and learn about a team culture that would be very similar to the one he would eventually find with the Chiefs.

“He’s honestly one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Thornhill said of Howell to VirginiaSportsTV. “I’ve never had a close bond with one of my coaches before. He’s a coach when we’re on the field, but a friend when we’re off the field. I believe that will bring a unit together and make us a lot better just because your coach is treating you more like family than just a player.”

“I like the feeling of that,” he continued, “because the guys don’t feel they’re someone who’s just on my team — a stranger. Everyone has a close bond. We’re more like family.”