Despite Thornton’s anonymity, head coach Paul Rhoads would tell you he has been one of the most consistent and best performers on the team the last two seasons.
Such is the life of the long snapper on a football team. You never know he is there unless there is a mishap. And so far in his brilliant career, Thornton hasn’t given you a chance to get to know him.
Thornton, a junior from Marion, Iowa, is entering his third and final season as ISU’s deep snapper on all punts, field goals and extra points. So far in his Cyclone career he has been absolutely perfect. No snap too high, or too low. Every single time Thornton has given the punter or holder the opportunity to execute the play with the highest efficiency.
Rhoads marvels at Thornton’s accuracy and consistency.
“Long snapping is a forgotten position and a position taken for granted,” Rhoads said. “We are always keenly aware having a guy like Spencer who can operate perfect. That’s what the position needs to be. It needs to be on time. It needs to be accurate every time it happens. You’re talking about extreme amounts of yards and you’re talking about points every time that he is on the field. Without that consistency from that position, games can change. We have been outstanding when Spencer has the ball in his hands.”
Iowa State has been blessed with outstanding long snappers in recent memory. Guys like Landon Schrage, Matt Purvis and Dakota Zimmerman helped raise the bar, and Thornton is elevating it even further.
Long-snapping first piqued Thornton’s interest when he was in high school at Cedar Rapids Washington. Thornton already was a center and he felt a need to assist the varsity any way he could. He had never practiced the art of long-snapping, but he received a huge boost from his father, DeKevin, who was a punter in high school.
Through long practices in the evenings, Thornton started to get the hang of it.
“I probably started back in seventh grade,” Thornton said. “My dad first suggested I try it, so we started practicing in the front yard. My dad was a punter, so he knew where to catch the ball and we just started practicing. We got out the tape measure and measured 15 yards and I think if you look hard enough, there’s still some spray paint on the sidewalk where we measured off 15 yards. That’s where it kind of started and I took over as the long snapper for our team.”
Thornton kept improving his craft during his high school years. He spent summers attending Jamie Kohl’s camps, a former Iowa State kicker who has built a reputation as the leader in kicking, punting and snapping instruction. He always dreamed of playing Division I football and knew that long snapping would be his ticket.
“When I realized that being a 205-pound center wasn’t going to get me anywhere, I knew snapping was going to be the way to get me on a team,” Thornton said. “It’s such an art and a craft to perfect. I just worked. I attended many of Kohl’s Camps and I set my sights on long-snapping and worked hard. It wasn’t until Kohl told me, ‘Hey, Iowa State is looking for someone,’ I started thinking about Iowa State.”
Iowa State was indeed searching for a long snapper with the departure of Zimmerman. It also didn’t hurt Iowa State was a leader in the field of study Thornton wanted to pursue in aerospace engineering.
He visited Iowa State during spring practice and the first person to greet him as he arrived was Coach Rhoads. It certainly made an impression.
“To have Coach Rhoads the first person to meet me at the door, that just kind of set that tone of where I wanted to be,” Thornton said. “By the end of my spring break I told them this is where I want to go to school.”
Thornton was been blessed to work with one of the nation’s best punters in All-Big 12 performer Kirby Van Der Kamp his first two seasons as a long snapper. When Van Der Kamp succeeded, Thornton took pride in that. A good punter needs a good snapper.
The two formed a special bond.
“Kirby had outstanding years and I just fed off that,” Thornton said. “I worked every day to make him a better punter, and that’s something that makes you feel good. I’m really technical and it would be my goal to make sure Kirby never had to move right or left or back. If he didn’t say anything after the punt on the sideline, then that’s your compliment. That’s what you’re looking for.”
Thornton enters his senior year as one of the Cyclones’ most valuable players. He continues to take over a 100 snaps daily to make sure you never hear his name, and Thornton has no problem with that.
“It’s kind of a backwards compliment,” said Thornton. “You kind of want that recognition but at the same time the only way you’re going to get it is if you screw up.”