Posted: 12:51 pm Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Glades Day DB Eaton Spence signs with Illinois, JT Thornton to sign late 

By Jeff Greer

Illinois continued feeding its Florida pipeline with the signing of Glades Day athlete Eaton Spence on Wednesday. Fellow Glades Day senior J.T. Thornton expects to sign with Illinois at a later date.

Spence (6-0, 175, No. 33 on the Big Board) signed his National Letter of Intent and faxed it to Illinois this morning. He held a formal ceremony in front of his teammates, classmates and coaches in Glades Day’s gymnasium on Wednesday afternoon. Thornton (6-0, 165, No. 23 on the Big Board) did not sign on Wednesday for academic reasons, but Glades Day coach Pete Walker said Thornton still plans to sign with the Illini once his grades are up.

“Every since we were little, me and my friends would talk about getting to the NFL and college, and this is the first part of getting that done,” said Spence, who will play defensive back at Illinois. “When I went up (to Illinois), it felt family. It felt like I was at Glades Day. That was what I wanted to see …

“I made it to college. This is one of the top days of my life. A lot of people around (the Glades) don’t get a chance to do that. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Spence chose Illinois over FIU, Marshall and Northern Illinois. The multi-talented star served as Glades Day’s top cover corner after Thornton broke his leg late in the 2010 season, but he did a lot more than that for the Gators. Spence lined up as a pass rusher, receiver and punt returner for the Gators. Walker even mentioned Spence as a possible fill-in for quarterback Tanner Redish when Redish broke his collarbone late in the season.

Also a standout student, Spence has a 3.3 grade-point average. Walker said he’s “one of the finest young men to walk the halls at Glades Day.” Spence plans to study business at Illinois.

“If all our kids are like Eaton Spence, then we’re gonna be fine,” Walker said. “He’s a playmaker, too. They got an exceptional football player.”

A soon-to-be graduate of a small, Class 1B school like Glades Day, signing with one of the largest universities in the nation didn’t faze Spence or Walker. Having Thornton also committed to play at Illinois helped and having former American Heritage standout Darius Millines as his visit host at Illinois was a big plus, too. Spence said seeing another small-school product excelling at Illinois made his choice that much easier.

“(Millines) went to a small school, too, and it’s not a big-fish-in-a-small-pond kind of thing,” Spence said. “He said, ‘You just come up here and do your thing and you’ll get on the field.’”

Thornton broke his leg late in Glades Day’s season and missed the Gators’ state-championship run. He was Glades Day’s No. 1 shutdown cornerback, almost always covering the opponent’s top receiver. He has fully healed since, and was almost healthy enough to play in Glades Day’s Class 1B championship win over South Daytona-Warner Christian.

The senior verbally committed to Illinois before the 2010 season started, but Glades Day coach Pete Walker said Thornton “still has some work to do” to academically qualify. That won’t discourage Thornton from signing, and the Illini will give him time to get his academics up to par.

“It’s just delaying his decision,” Walker said. “He can still get everything in order and be just fine.”