Jul. 25—As Juan Thornhill gazes amongst his teammates taking part in Sunday's second practice of the rookie portion of Chiefs Training Camp at Missouri Western, he realizes he's no longer a young gun.
Working alongside a secondary group filled with mostly rookies, the third-year pro out of Virginia all of the sudden notices he's a leader on his team after helping pave the way to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
"I love it. I was once a rookie," Thornhill said. "With me being a vet out here, there's some rookies that's not sure how camp's gonna go. I don't have to say a lot, just tell them to follow me. If there's calls they don't know, I'll communicate and walk them through it."
That time spent around the likes of Tyrann Mathieu and other leaders in the defense and secondary turned Thornhill into one of the stars of the 2019 Draft, earning a spot of the Pro Football Writers All-Rookie Team.
He finished the season with three interceptions and 42 tackles, but he tore his ACL in the final game of the regular season and was forced to miss the postseason run and Super Bowl 54 victory.
The COVID-19 pandemic followed and turned the offseason period into a virtual setting until training camp. All that time, Thornhill remained in the Chiefs' facility going through rehab following his surgery. But spending time away from his teammates made the process tougher.
"I feel like not having OTAs bothered me because I wasn't around a lot of the guys. It's like I was fighting that battle alone," Thornhill said. "When you tear your ACL, you feel like you're by yourself. You wanna see those guys in the locker room because you need someone around you to talk to them and have them lift you up sometimes. I didn't have that."
Thornhill never matched his 2019 form a year ago, even seeing his playing time dialed back in the latter portion of the season. But that changed in the postseason when he shined against the Browns and Bills, playing one of his best games of his career against Buffalo.
While he struggled to look the part at times, Thornhill said he never really felt the part, either.
"Honestly, I had to play it off a little bit. I wasn't at 100 percent, but it was just more about the mental," Thornhill said. "Like I had to tell myself, 'It's going to hurt, but you've got to play through it.' So, that's why when the end of the season came you saw me making more plays just because it was more mental, and I just pushed myself through that mental block."
Following the Super Bowl loss, Thornhill spent much of the offseason on the sidelines in the ear of Steve Spagnuolo instead of between the lines. Though he said no offseason procedures were, Thornhill suggested being at the early portion of training camp was by design for his benefit.
"I wasn't completely out of it, but it was just more of a mental thing so I could get back to camp and be 100 percent," he said, adding that he feels better than he has in a long time.
"I'm putting myself at the top of the list. I'm going to compete with Tyrann. Tyrann is a heck of a player, so we compete every single day. He says he's going to get an interception this game, I'm going to get two. That's how we just compete against each other, so I'm going to put myself at the top of the list for sure."
The Chiefs will hold one final session of rookie training camp Monday morning before the team arrives in full in the evening ahead of the first practice Wednesday.
Brandon Zenner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowZenner.