Seniors Brooks Foster and Brandon Tate join junior Hakeem Nicks as arguably the ACC's top receiving trio, following a 2007 season in which they combined for 128 receptions, 1854 yards and 12 touchdowns. Thornton has posted eight career catches for 87 games in 17 games of action, including three receptions for 40 yards last season.
"It's tough, because everybody wants to play as much as they can, but the fact that we have a "Big 3" is good because it pushes me," Thornton said. "It tells me where I need to get to so one day I can fill their shoes, if need be... I'm trying to get to where they are now.
"We've got some guys in our receiving corps that are arguably the best in the ACC, and for me to be included in that in any way, shape or form helps me tremendously. Hakeem and I go head-to-head a lot over the summer, pushing each other to see who wants it more."
The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder was a key addition to North Carolina's 2005 recruiting class, a three-star prospect ranked the No. 37 wide receiver in the country. After a successful high school career at St. Mark's in Dallas, Texas, Thornton attended prep school at Blair Academy and was promptly named the New Jersey Prep Player of the Year in 2004.
The move to the prep school on the Atlantic sparked the standout to look at college programs on the Eastern seaboard.
"Just looking into some East Coast schools, I saw North Carolina and decided to come for an official visit," Thornton said. "I had heard so many good things about it, and it was a situation where I thought I could come in and contribute and have a good home."
With few observers knowing what to expect from the tall target, Thornton described his playing style earlier this week.
"My game's a little bit like Hakeem's," Thornton said. "I'm a little bit taller, a little bit bigger frame, so I'm able to get by smaller [defensive backs]. The guys always say that I have deceptive speed because I'm so tall. I'm not as quick as Brandon or Brooks, but you've got to be careful and not let me get too much of a head start or I'll be down the field before you know it."
Thornton hails from a football family, as his father Bruce played six years of professional ball, while his two brothers – Kalen and Kyle – both played at the University of Texas. Kalen even spent some time at linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys in 2004-05, before a knee injury forced an early retirement. Kenton's exposure to elite-level football allows him to appreciate the value of having a long-time NFL coach like wide receivers coach Charlie Williams instructing him at UNC.
"He's pushed all of the receivers to do the best that we can," Thornton said. "He tells us every year that no spot is reserved and that we've got to earn it. I definitely think the competition between the receivers that we've had has been good, pushing everybody to their limits."
While the defensive side of the ball is still loaded with underclassmen, upperclassmen reign supreme on offense. With a two-deep full of fourth and fifth-year players, Thornton believes that leadership and production is expected from the veterans.
"It makes us accountable for all that we do," Thornton said. "Coming into our second season under the same offensive coordinator, everyone's back and we know the offense, and we know what we can do with the offense. And talking about the running backs, for instance, it brings them along and tells them, ‘Hey, keep up because we have a veteran line and a veteran receiving corps.' It's forcing every one to keep up with us."
Thornton is currently working with the second-team offense, and all indications are that he is the fourth option for offensive coordinator John Shoop. But individual goals are not his immediate concern, as he knows those will come with time. For now, it's about helping this group of Tar Heels to a winning season in Chapel Hill.
"I just want to do what I can to help the team win," Thornton said. "My job right now is to know everything. And if Hakeem needs a break one play or gets bang, then I have to come in and do the same thing the same way, so that the team doesn't miss a beat."