T.J. Thorpe was ready to go. The Durham native entered last spring as a rising sophomore, eager to find a fit in the new offense introduced to Chapel Hill by Larry Fedora and Blake Anderson. As a true freshman in 2011, Thorpe had earned honorable mention All-ACC honors for his exploits in the return game, and he was looking forward to adding to his two career receptions. In the spring scrimmage, he had six catches for 50 yards and appeared well on his way to making an impact that fall.
And then, he broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot at fall training camp. Out for the season. In the crucial first year under a new head coach, Thorpe would be on the sidelines. So, he went to work in the weight room and the film room. He became a player-coach of sorts, mentoring Quinshad Davis on the way to Davis’s record-setting freshman season. Thorpe wouldn’t be able to showcase his talents on the field, but he could be a consummate teammate and when healthy, return better than before.
And then, another setback. Thorpe aggravated the injury and missed spring practice. Like teammate Darius Lipford, he’d have to come back from the same injury twice. Though the injury wasn’t a good thing, the timing was better than if he’d suffered it in the fall. He went back to work, intent on being healthy for fall camp. Days before the end of summer classes, Thorpe was cleared.
Now, Thorpe’s foot is healthy, but he’s still getting his conditioning back to pre-injury levels. The fast-pace game plan implemented by Fedora and his staff requires a stamina unmatched in college football, and if a player is off his feet for an extended period, that conditioning is bound to slip. “My foot is actually probably the last thing on my mind right now,” Thorpe said after a recent practice. “It’s more my hamstrings and quads; everything slowly tightens back up. My foot feels good. They gave me a new pair of cleats. That’s why I’m the only one out here with black cleats. Everything with my foot and the surgery is good, it’s just a matter of maintaining and staying healthy.”
He may be 100 percent healthy, but Thorpe is not yet at 100 percent participation in training camp. He’s taking it slow, not taking every rep, not trying to rush back too soon. “Now, we’re in the process of saving bodies, saving legs, because we’re becoming real thin at each position,” he said. “The coaches keep stressing, ‘We don’t need you now. We need you on the 29th. We need you later on in the season when we can actually use you.’”
Sometimes an injury can help a player recalibrate his focus and determine what’s truly important. Thorpe said that all his life, he’d been thinking he would be a three-year college player, a player that would enter the NFL Draft as soon as allowed. The foot injury taught him that athletic success could be fleeting, and he ought to invest in other parts of his life. “It’s kind of set me back to even off-the-field stuff,” he said. “You need to pay attention (in class), because you might need it later. Football’s not always going to be there.”
In Kenan Football Center, Thorpe poured himself into his workouts and film study. Quarterback Bryn Renner described Thorpe as “one of the best film room and meeting room guys I’ve been around.” The receiver watched film and saw where he’d fit into the offense, what he could bring to the table upon his return.
“Last year, we did a good job as receivers, but we missed out on a lot of deep opportunities,” he said after practice. “We made a lot of intermediate plays, but we missed out on a lot of deep balls and I feel like that’s one of the things that I was doing out here now, catching the deep balls and stretching the field.”
He also saw aspects of his game that needed improvement, things that he could work on even off his feet. Physicality is one of Fedora’s core tenets, and Thorpe recognized that he’d need to work on his body to meet the demands of the game plan. “That’s getting off jams, blocking, running the ball, fighting for extra yards, whatever it has to be,” he said. “All I could really do for the longest (time) was lift, and I had a lot of built-up frustration from the injury, a lot of anger, so I just took it out in the weight room. The heaviest I’ve been is 215. Now I’m back around 202, 203, where I want to be, but I still kept some of the muscle mass.” He arrived in Chapel Hill at 6’0, 180 pounds and has now is noticeably bigger in his upper body, an intimidating presence with or without the ball.
T.J. Thorpe was a lightning bolt in the return game in 2011. He wants to bring that same energy to the line of scrimmage in 2013. In an offense he calls “a wide receiver’s dream,” Thorpe figures to be a playmaker. “I think of it as the excitement factor,” he said, “Just making people miss and turning something short into something big.” He’s done the work off the field. Now, he can’t wait to step on it - with a healthy foot, of course.
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