DeKALB — It wasn’t just the cold that led to a bit of a culture shock when Shemar Thornton transferred to Northern Illinois University from Florida International in January.
The senior wide receiver said it was a whole different environment, more team-oriented than he had experienced, and it took until a trip home in May for things to be put in perspective.
“It was my first time being away from home for a while,” said Thornton, who played high school football in Florida. “I had to get used to that, just being outside of my comfort zone. When I went home in May, I had a talk with my mom and she said, ‘It’s your last time really in college ball. So give it your all and leave nothing on the field.’ ”
Throughout summer workouts, NIU head coach Thomas Hammock said Thornton’s attitude and work ethic noticeably have improved.
“When he first got here, it was a bit of a culture shock as far as our standard of work and our standard of expectations,” Hammock said. “He went home after semester, got his mind right, and he’s come back this summer and really attacked it. It’s been fun to see. Obviously he’s a tremendous player, great route runner, tremendous hands. He gives us a chance to be very dynamic at the wide receiver position.”
NIU wide receivers coach Joseph Hawkins, who came on board with the Huskies in April, was a graduate assistant at FIU in 2019, Thornton’s best year. He caught 51 passes for 668 yards.
“Shemar has been doing a phenomenal job,” Hawkins said. “His growth from when he first got here until now has been unbelievable. Me and Shemar have a connection. ... Seeing him here and watching him progress is nothing but amazing.”
FIU went from bowls in Thornton’s first three years in the program to an 0-5 record in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, similar to NIU’s 0-6 mark.
But in 2021, FIU was 1-11, while the Huskies went 9-4 and won a Mid-American Conference championship.
“At FIU, we were going to bowl games consistently there, then [COVID-19] year came and we took that downfall,” said Thornton, who played only two games after his 2019 breakout year. “We had a losing year last year. So I just wanted to be in a winning program, good quarterback, good head coach, great team, young team.”
Thornton said he’s been working on his chemistry with quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who’s in his second year with the Huskies after transferring from Michigan State.
Hawkins called Thornton an absolute technician when it comes to running routes, and Hammock agreed.
“He is a refined route runner,” Hammock said. “He may be our best route runner. And that’s saying something. I think Rocky has confidence in him, and he’s going to be a weapon for us. We just have to keep getting timing down of the passing game and keep building that confidence and that chemistry, and I think he’ll be right in the mix to be making plays for us on offense.”
Hammock said Thornton is meshing well on the field with the other receivers, including possession receiver Cole Tucker and deep threat Trayvon Rudolph.
“I feel like we’re coming together pretty well,” Thornton said. “A lot of the coaches said this year they feel like the receivers can take an extra step, take us that step overboard and get us ready for the next level.”