DECATUR, Ga. -- Defensive tackle Michael Thornton (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson) is going to be one of the most closely followed recruiting storylines down the homestretch of the 2010 cycle. He has become quite coveted with his excellent play on the field, and his recruitment is turning into a battle between some of the nation's top recruiters and evaluators.
When you watch Thornton, it's easy to see why so many schools want him. He's a big, strong defensive tackle who makes plays. Prospects like him at that particular position aren't exactly in abundance. Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin may get the headlines for riding a helicopter in to see him in Friday night's 20-0 win against rival Martin Luther King (Lithonia, Ga.), but the presence of Vols defensive line coach Ed Orgeron tells us more. You hear a lot about his recruiting tactics and prowess and rightfully so. But the bottom line is Orgeron found gems like Greg Hardy and Ted Laurent while he was the head coach at Ole Miss and is one of the top defensive line coaches and evaluators in the country. If he shows interest in a defensive lineman, chances are that defensive lineman is good.
Thornton says a renewed approach with his teammates has helped him raise his stock this year.
"The team really follows me now," Thornton said. "I am not ever going to let my team down. I am going to go hard and give it all that I've got, and when I can't go hard anymore, I will get somebody else to help me. Somebody else will push me. They will push me and we'll get it."
Running back Raymond Sanders, a fellow senior who put on quite a show himself Friday night, sees Thornton's leadership manifest before every game.
"Mike and I talk before every game and tell each other that big-time players make big-time plays," Sanders said. "Last year we were kind of laid-back and quiet. This year, we knew we had to step it up."
The slew of schools after Thornton's services starts with three SEC programs that are major recruiting players in Atlanta: Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee. While other schools certainly have had success recruiting the city, those three from the SEC historically have gotten after it a little better than most. Penn State is a program from the Big Ten that has a real shot. Michigan also has been said to be in the mix. He was scheduled to attend Georgia Tech's home game against Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Thornton is taking official visits to programs like Penn State (Nov. 7 for the Nittany Lions' home game with Ohio State) and perhaps Michigan and others before focusing on the schools in the Southeast.
"I am just taking officials to the far away places because we don't have the time, money or resources to get there on our own," Thornton said. "So I am going to use the trip to get up there and see if I like it. I have never been outside of the Southeast, so hopefully I can get up there and see a new place."
The one out-of-region school that has emerged as a serious player is Penn State. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson has long had a national reputation as a recruiter and a position coach. His involvement with Thornton is a major factor.
"You know, they are up there," he said. "I would not call them over everybody right now, but Penn State is definitely up there. I love [defensive line coach] Larry Johnson. Coach Kermit Buggs recruits me, but coach Johnson kind of got into it and came down to see me play in the spring. That kind of made a big impression on me. He came all the way down to Georgia to see me play. I really show him love, he shows me love. We talk all the time."
Rodney Garner is Thornton's recruiter for the University of Georgia, the program many believe to be in the driver's seat for his services.
"Georgia would be up there will Penn State right now," Thornton said. "[The struggles UGA has had on defense], that's all right because the players they have coming in are a great recruiting class. That's what I am going to worry about is my class. I am going to worry about what's going on on Stephenson's field right now and when I get to wherever I am going, I am going to worry about what's going on there."
The Vols are now in the mix thanks in part to the grand entrance that Kiffin and Orgeron made.
"It blew me away, you know," Thornton said. "We have a linebacker that goes to Tennessee [Nigel Mitchell-Thornton], so it would be nice for me to get up there and play on the team with him. I am going to give them a look. I am going to give Tennessee a look."
JC Shurburtt covers recruiting for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.