Jalen Thornton

Iowa State running back Breece Hall, left, runs in a touchdown as West Virginia defensive lineman Jalen Thornton, center, and cornerback Nicktroy Fortune, right, are late to the play during a December 2020 game in Ames, Iowa.

MORGANTOWN — You’ve heard the old saying, like father, like son?

West Virginia’s football program is hoping that proves to be right for they are grooming Jalen Thornton, the son of one of their all-time great defensive linemen, John Thornton, to fill a similar role, probably next year when Dante Stills moves onward and upward to the next level.

And yes, he says, he is like his father but he might not be here doing his thing were it not for his mother, Allison.

“Shout out to my mom. She’s probably the reason I kept going with this,” Jalen Thornton said. “When I started going with this I didn’t know first if it was going to be right for me or if I would make it, but there was never a doubt in her mind. She always instilled that confidence in me that I could do anything I wanted to do.

“She’s my No. 1 supporter for sure.”

If Thornton’s mom was the driving force behind his climb through Indian Hill High in Cincinnati to WVU, his father was always the steadying influence.

Sometimes it’s tough when your dad carries credentials like John Thornton does, two times all-Big East, second round NFL draft pick of Tennessee, splitting a 10-year NFL career between the Titans and the Bengals.

Sometimes a father like that can continually measure his son against his accomplishments, which can be vastly unfair, and sometimes the son himself is measuring himself against his father, loading pressure on himself.

“I think the burden is what I put on myself,” Jalen said. “I’m really hard on myself to make plays, help this team win. My dad has never been hard on me. He’s never been that dad who’s ‘You got to do this, you got to do that. You got to go to this camp.’ It was just play hard and enjoy the game.

“In this day and age, a lot of people put pressure on themselves to be great,” Jalen said. “Like who doesn’t want to be great? There’s never been a burden. He told me to just have fun. If you are not having fun playing this game and you are putting all your time and effort into this, you’re miserable ... and that’s a bad thing. You should have fun, even if you are not winning.”

But John always saw to it that football would be fun, right from the first time he took him into the Bengals locker room when he was 7 or 8 years old.

“I saw guys like Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco in the locker room. I’m looking at them and I’m like, ‘Wow!’ These guys are the best, the top of the top. Every kid wants to get to that. At a young age I saw it’s a blessing to play in the National Football League. It’s a blessing to play in college, so I’m thankful for that.”

The two — John and Jalen — are much alike.

“Our mannerisms are the same. My mom noticed that, my brother noticed that, a couple of guys on the team noticed that,” he said. “People have conversations with us and we’ll be like ‘Yeah, OK, cool ... cool. Oh, yeah, nice. Whenever I text my dad about plays I had in practice, that I’m doing better, all I get back is ‘OK, cool.’ That’s old news to him. He’s been through it all.”

Growing into a starting defensive lineman isn’t as easy Darius and Dante Stills and Ahkeem Mesidor might have you think. Jalen’s had to work hard at it.

“From year 2 to year 3, I definitely made strides,” he said. “There are some things I can do to definitely get better ... in the weight room, on the field, knowing what to do when I get in, personnel checks. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m confident I will get there.

Coaches Andrew Jackson, his line coach, and defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley have made him a project, but Jalen puts it all on himself and his approach.

“The biggest thing to me is being confident in my abilities so when my number is called I’ll be ready to make a play,” he said.

He has analyzed where he needs to improve.

“I had to get stronger up front. Playing nose, D-end, D- tackle — we’re really versatile, so you have to know what you are doing,” he said. “I’ve got to be a little more explosive, quick first step, getting off the ball instead of looking around and seeing what’s happening. It’s just getting back into the midst of playing and relaxing out there.

“You know, there’s a lot that goes into this game. You’ve got to be ready emotionally, mentally, physically ... knowing what to do, knowing the person you are going up against. That’s probably the most important part.”

But through it all he remembers the advice his dad gave him and makes it fun no matter what hill he has to climb.

“The process can be hard at times. I know that, but that’s all the fun in it. Having challenges thrown your way and overcoming them,” he said. “They said as a man the way you respond when you’re struggling as a team and trying to make things right is the fun part, trying to get better together.”

They can get all they want on Saturday night when they travel to Kansas and take home a victory to make them bowl eligible.

Follow @bhertzel on Twitter

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