Dont’e Thornton Jr. rose up between a pair of defenders and with one hand secured the looping pass for a touchdown.
It was just one play, during a competitive but relatively meaningless 7-on-7 showcase at Archbishop Spalding High School on May 30, but for Mount Saint Joseph football coach Rich Holzer it was more than that.
That catch, along with several others by Thornton over the course of the afternoon, was further proof that his 6-foot-4 rising junior wide receiver — who verbally committed to Penn State in February — is still just scratching the surface of his potential.
“There were a bunch of contested footballs today that when he was a sophomore and a freshman, he probably wouldn’t have come down with,” said Holzer, who was among the first to rush over to congratulate Thornton after his acrobatic reception. “Today, it was guys hanging all over him and he’s making one-handed catches around their back. … He’s stepping into a new category right now.”
Holzer is far from the only one these days noticing the potential in Thornton. The recruiting buzz surrounding the Gaels’ budding superstar has been a whirlwind since he wrapped up a first-team All-Metro sophomore season that included 51 catches for 960 yards and 12 touchdowns this past fall.
On Feb. 2, Thornton announced his commitment to play for the Nittany Lions on Twitter. But in the months since, the offers have continued to roll in from top-notch programs, such as Ohio State and Florida.
While Penn State still leads the pack among his now more than 20 total scholarship offers, Thornton said he hasn’t closed any doors.
“Myself and my family believe I have earned and deserve [the chance] to enjoy the entire recruiting process, and to just see what other schools and coaches have to offer,” he said.
He’s also quick to add, though, that he’s felt right at home during his many visits to Penn State.
“When you go up there, every coach greets you,” Thornton said. “It’s not like you just talk to the coaches that are recruiting you. … You get to meet all of the players. So, you have a great time every time you get to come up there and you’re really accepted up there.”
According to 247Sports, Thornton is the ninth-ranked receiver in the national class of 2021 and the second-ranked player in Maryland. He also ranks 56th in the nation overall. Thornton joins St. Frances cornerback Clinton Burton Jr. (ranked 152nd) and outside linebacker Aaron Willis (ranked 165th) among local players in the top 200 of their class according to the recruiting website.
Thornton’s ability to lead in the classroom has been on display as well — he carries a 3.9 GPA and was elected class president. Regardless of his college choice, he plans on using football as a vehicle for his education.
“Football is one of the main things that can help me and my family make it out,” said Thornton, who resides in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood. “Basically, I could use football to get me into college, where I don’t even have to go to the NFL or anything. I could go to college and get my degree and I could still help my family.”
Among the biggest family support for Thornton has been his uncle, Faschall Grade, who is a regular at all of his nephew’s sporting events, whether it’s football, basketball or track and field.
Grade said Penn State has separated itself during the recruiting process with its welcoming nature, but also reiterates his desire for Thornton not to rush into any decisions.
“One thing that we strive on at our home is family first, love,” Grade said. “With that, Penn State shows a lot of love, have shown a lot of love and continues to show a lot of love through this whole process. We’re definitely proud at this point in time, just having Penn State behind us. We also at this time want to make sure that Dont’e has the best fit.
“That’s why we are doing the recruitment. We are going to keep the recruitment open, but Penn State has a No. 1 spot for us in our hearts. We’re enjoying it right now.”
Thornton and the rest of Mount Saint Joseph’s skill position players will be traveling up to Penn State this Saturday to take part in another 7-on-7 showcase. Among the scheduled matchups for the Gaels is St. Joseph’s Prep, which went 13-0 last season and was crowned PIAA 6A state champions.
All of this offseason work is part of Mount Saint Joseph’s effort to build on last year’s 10-2 campaign, which placed the team second behind Calvert Hall (13-1) in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference. The continued growth of Thornton is a big piece of that.
And Holzer isn’t shy when he talks about the future for his star wideout.
“When you get kids in the program as a coach after a while, you can kind of look at a kid and be like, ‘That kid’s got a shot,’ meaning that not only will he be a big time Division I recruit, but have a shot — if he does what he needs to do in college — have a shot at the NFL,” Holzer said. “I’ve had a couple of kids that I felt that way about that were of that caliber and Dont’e is of that caliber.
“I think if he continues to progress the way he’s progressing and he gets into a Division I program and really works his butt off, the sky is the limit. He can be as good as he wants to be.”
Reach Kyle J. Andrews at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KyleJAndrewsSun.