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Chiefs training camp notebook: No starting nod for Juan Thornhill just yet

Thornhill was the talk of camp Wednesday, but Steve Spagnuolo is not yet ready to make a decision

NFL: AUG 04 Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

About 6,500 Chiefs fans showed up to Missouri Western State University in the rain on Wednesday morning—primarily to see the NFL’s reigning MVP: quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The opportunity to watch Mahomes practice is worth the trip in itself, but as a bonus, Wednesday was also quarterback autograph-signing day in St. Joseph.

As it turned out, fans were also treated to the stellar play of one of their promising young stars on the other side of the football—rookie safety Juan Thornhill.

Thornhill began to garner some buzz the week of the draft, when some felt he could go in the first round. But fortunately for the Chiefs—who didn’t have a first-round pick—that didn’t happen, and they snagged him with the 63rd overall pick in the second round.

The buzz has continued into the summer, as Thornhill leads the Chiefs in training camp with at least five interceptions—including one against Mahomes on Wednesday.

Lined up to Mahomes’ right, Tyreek Hill ran a corner route and Thornhill stayed with the play the whole way. Mahomes overthrew the ball a little, opening the door for Thornhill. With Hill having no chance, Thornhill made the diving catch.

“If he can do well against this guy out here—number 15—then we’ll be in good shape,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said in his press conference after practice. “No expectations in that regard. I just want him to go out and do his job and do it really well. That’s really the expectation for me.”

Spagnuolo faced a few more inquiries regarding Thornhill, who seemed to be on the minds of many reporters Wednesday morning. Watching him for the first two weeks camp, it has seemed almost obvious that he would earn a starting position by the time Week 1 rolls around.

But the Chiefs defensive coordinator said not so fast.

“I’m not privy to starting rookies right away,” Spagnuolo said. “I think they need to earn it—I’m still old fashioned that way—but we’ll see what happens. Sometimes, that’s dictated by injuries.

“I think he’s right on track,” Spagnuolo continued. “There were a couple things there [Wednesday]—the game might be still a little fast right now, but that’s to be expected. That’s why you go to get in some game competition, to get up to speed, but I think he’ll be fine. I like what Dave Merritt is doing with him. We’ll just keep track of him. We’re expecting big things from him, but we won’t know until we get to the game.”

The Chiefs play the Cincinnati Bengals in their first preseason game at 7 p.m. Arrowhead Time on Saturday night, which will be the first opportunity for Thornhill to showcase what he can do against opponents not wearing the red and gold.

In a game setting, defensive coaches won’t be able to help Thornhill like they can readily do in St. Joseph. But if there is one positive for the rookie, he should have any on-field instruction he needs.

“The most instinctive guy on that back end is Tyrann Mathieu,” Spagnuolo said. “So 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—that’s because he’s learning the system—but I’m hoping natural instincts come out when he’s got the scheme down.”

Thornhill has four opportunities to prove to the guy who doesn’t start rookies that he should start a rookie. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time.

“When I was in St. Louis, I do remember James Laurinaitis—we drafted [him] in the second round, and he was a MIKE linebacker,” Spagnuolo explained. “I said, ‘Look. He’s got to earn his stripes up there,’ but it got toward the end of preseason, and it was quite evident that he was a guy that could run the show. So he started right away.”

My bet is that history repeats itself.


  • Weather in St. Joseph Wednesday morning was rainy and the temperature was in the mid-to-high 60s. It was impressive so many fans showed under bad conditions.
  • It definitely feels like we’re into the dog days of camp. While the energy is still there, so too is a feeling that everybody involved—players, coaches, media and fans—is ready for an actual game to talk about.
  • Wide receiver Tyreek Hill returned after being given a few more days to work through his quad contusion. Like in his initial return to the team in camp, his chemistry with Patrick Mahomes didn’t skip a beat. As Mahomes looks improved this camp, so too does Hill.
  • During one play, Hill caught what appeared to be a jump-ball over Kendall Fuller for a touchdown, and Hill sort of stepped over him—a la Allen Iverson.
  • Speaking of Fuller, he may not be exactly 100%. Asked for an evaluation of Fuller after practice, Steve Spagnuolo said this: “Kendall’s been fine, he’s been battling a little bit of tweak here and there... We’ve gotten Tyrann Mathieu some reps there too in anticipation if something should happen.” It gave me the impression that Fuller is dealing with some minor pain, and that could be a reason why he’s looked a little off this summer.
  • Wide receiver Marcus Kemp continues to impress on offense. If you haven’t had the opportunity to make it to camp or live out of town, keep an eye on No. 19 on Saturday night.
  • Watching Damien Williams in his first practice back from his injury was refreshing. He shows better ability to shake defenders off in the open field than Carlos Hyde and Darrel Williams.
  • I discussed Thornhill’s interception above, but another nugget: During one play Wednesday, he showcased enough speed to keep up with Hill. Hill still made the catch (not surprising at this point), but it was nice to see Thornhill being able to keep up with him.
  • Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks are getting opportunities at defensive end with the top three players out. Spagnuolo on what they get out of it: “The next guy that’s in always benefits. One of the things that people don’t realize is that when all of a sudden, they’re working with the first group, which generally operates a little better—Hitch (Anthony Hitchens) is in there and getting people lined up—I think that makes them more comfortable. They’re hearing a different voice. We need that because quite honestly in a game, it’s going to be hard playing with just four guys there. They need to hear the other MIKE linebacker talking to them. It’ll all be a benefit. I’d like to get those other guys back, but I think that the guys replacing them will benefit from it.”

Injury report

The Chiefs had four players—including wide receiver Tyreek Hill and running back Damien Williams—return to practice on Wednesday. Check out our full injury report here.

Tweets of note

Quote of the day

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on whether the team has an identity yet: “I don’t know that I would slap an identity on it. This is what I always preach to them—that we’re going to chase perfection but rely on relentless.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs resume practice in St. Joseph at 8:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time on Thursday. After practice, head coach Andy Reid will speak to the media and linebackers will sign autographs. It will be the final public practice before Saturday’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

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