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April 26, 2013

Illini selected in NFL Draft

Fighting Illini offensive guard Hugh Thornton was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the 3rd round (No. 86 overall) of the NFL Draft on Friday.

"I'm just excited to be a Colt, to be in the NFL, and to have this opportunity to pursue my career in football," Thornton said. "I owe it to the people at Illinois who helped me through, my friends, teammates, and coaches."

Just four guards were taken ahead of Thornton in the Draft ; Chance Warmak (Alabama), Johnathan Cooper (North Carolina) and Larry Warford (Kentucky).

Thornton, 6-foot-5, 3010 pounds, was second-team All-Big Ten by coaches and honorable mention by media in 2012. He played in 42 career games, making 35 starts at both offensive guard and tackle.

Illinois recruited Thornton in 2009 as a 3-star offensive tackle out of Oberlin (Ohio). Originally, from Boise (Idaho), Thornton played at his first three seasons of high school football at Mountain View High and Boise High and was an Idaho state champion wrestler.

His initial recruiter was former Illini assistant coach Eric Wolford, who left to take a position at South Carolina in 2009. Joe Gilbert replaced Wolford as offensive line coach, and became influential in Thornton's development.

"Once I moved to Oberlin, the Midwest offers started coming in," Thornton said. "It was between Michigan State and Illinois. Coach Wolford recruited me coming out of high school. He left for South Carolina, and along comes Coach Gilbert. He was out watching me out practice and pushing me to get to the next level in college."

As a new member of the Colts organization, Thornton reunites with Gilbert, who now holds the same position with Indianapolis. It was Gilbert who contacted Thornton to let him know the Colts were drafting him.

"I was in Boise having a little draft party with my family, friends, and some of my coaches," Thornton said. "Coach Gilbert gave me that call, and I was so excited. I got the call and the emotions came out."

"Being back with Coach Gilbert is a blessing really," Thornton said. "He was one of the guys along with Coach Butkus who was with me during my career at Illinois the most. He taught me a lot of things, was my mentor, and pushed me to be my best. To be back with him at the next level in the NFL is an opportunity to succeed."

Thornton helps bolster a Colts offensive line that yielded 45 sacks. He will be protecting budding star quarterback Andrew Luck, who was 2nd to Redskins' QB Robert Griffin III for NFL Rookie of the Year in 2012-13.

"He is an incredible quarterback," Thornton said about Luck. "It's going to be a little bit different than my career at Illinois where we had a lot of scrambling quarterbacks. He is a great passer and incredibly smart. I don't know a whole lot (about the offense), but I'm excited to get to rookie mini-camp and excel. I'm a hard worker, and quick learner."

Thornton had one final message as he embarks on his pro career in the National Football League.

"I want to say thank you to Illini Nation and I'm excited to be a Colt now," he said.

Spence to the Bucs

Illini DT Akeem Spence was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 4th round (pick 100) of the NFL Draft. The Bucs traded up with Oakland to take Spence, who becomes the second Illini picked in the draft following guard Hugh Thornton.

"It was a great feeling," Spence said. "Me and my dad got the phone call from Coach (Greg) Schiano and he said they were going to trade up to take me. I know the Bucs liked me a lot. To get that phone call - I screamed, I jumped."

Spence declared for the NFL draft following his junior season at Illinois. He started every game of his career (38 consecutive) and finished with 186 career tackles, 16.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks.

Former Illinois head coach Ron Zook and assistant Dan Disch recruited Spence out of Fort Walton Beach (Fla.) in 2009.

"My biggest thing (coming out of high school) is I wanted to get away from home," Spence said. "I didn't think I was going to go all the way up north until I met Coach Zook and Coach Disch. They came in here and they talked Illinois up real good. I had seen Illinois play in the Rose Bowl with Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn. I just took a chance and it ended up working out for me."

Spence now heads back home to Florida to suit up with the Buccaneers. He said he feels lucky to be able to play in front of family and friends in Tampa.

"That's the biggest thing," Spence said. "I'm just a couple of hours down the road. My family can make every game. They weren't able to make every game at Illinois. Playing for my home state, there is no better feeling."

Former defensive line coach Keith Gilmore developed several NFL Draft picks during his stint at Illinois, and it was Gilmore who Spence credited with his development as a top defensive tackle.

"Coach Gilmore, I give him all of the credit," Spence said. "When I got to Illinois I was really raw. He just told me to be patient and learn how to become a college football player."


Cornerback Terry Hawthorne, Steelers, 5th Round (No. 150 overall)

Defensive end Michael Buchanan, Patriots, 7th round (No. 226 overall)

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