AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Payton Thorne is adapting well to life in the South and to the Auburn offense.
“I love it down here,” Thorne said. “This is my kind of place, my kind of people down here. Everyone’s been very welcoming and just good people. People are just nicer down here.”
Maybe it’s Southern hospitality. It might also have something to do with Thorne providing renewed hope for an offense that was often pedestrian and inconsistent in recent seasons ,especially in the passing game.
Thorne gets his crack at turning around the program’s recent struggles at quarterback and helping to hasten Freeze’s rebuilding timeline starting Saturday in the opener against UMass (1-0). Freeze has also imported new transfer receivers and offensive linemen to surround Thorne with a better supporting cast.
A two-year team captain at Michigan State, Thorne beat out incumbent starter Robby Ashford in preseason camp despite not arriving until after spring. Ashford’s status for the opener is uncertain with an oblique strain.
Freeze has praised Thorne’s leadership, understanding of the offense and “his attention to every little thing.”
“He wants to have the mental part of the game plan totally down,” Freeze said.
None of that comes as a surprise to Will Hewlett, Thorne’s personal quarterback coach.
“I get to work with a lot of great quarterbacks,” said Hewlett, who is with QB Collective of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. “I’ve been around a lot of really talented young men. He is arguably one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.”
Thorne spent several days in Florida during the summer, and Hewlett put him into a session that included NFL quarterbacks like Brock Purdy, Kyle Trask, Malik Willis and No. 4 draft pick Anthony Richardson. He fit right in, Hewlett said.
“He’s not Anthony Richardson in terms of his physical presence, but would you have guessed he wasn’t a pro? No,” Hewlett said. “He can make all the throws you’re going to need to make in the NFL. He’s also probably underrated as an athlete in terms of his ability to move around and make things happen.”
Thorne passed for 6,494 yards and 49 touchdowns over 26 starts at Michigan State. He left following a spring when coach Mel Tucker had made it clear the starting job was up for grabs.
Thorne declined to discuss “anything that happened at Michigan State.” But he said it was a whirlwind.
“If you would’ve asked me a week before I committed or a week before I got in the portal if I was transferring I would’ve been like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Thorne said. “But there was a few things that happened in the past of the whole offseason. But then when I entered the portal, talking with Coach Freeze, talking with the coaches here, I thought it was a no-brainer to come here and I thought it was a great opportunity.”
He and his father, Jeff Thorne, a college coach, spent some nine hours in Auburn studying the offense and watching film before committing. Upon his arrival, Thorne kept sheets of paper handy with head shots, names and other details of those within the program. to help him get names down.
Thorne is no stranger to starting for a Power Five team. Nor does he seem to lack the confidence to handle the pressures of life as an SEC quarterback, facing the likes of No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 LSU and No. 1 Georgia.
“If you’re going to be a quarterback in this league, you have to be confident,” Auburn tight end Luke Deal said. “I think his confidence has definitely helped him out, and his leadership ability.
“I think that’s been a huge part of his success and why he’s kind of in that role now. So we’re ready to follow him and you always need a quarterback who’s got a little swagger in him and we’ve got a room that’s got plenty of that.”