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August 5, 2013
Red shirt sophomore T.J. Thorpe has already passed one of the biggest milestones of the 2013 season - day three of training camp, which he considered his "broken foot anniversary," - and now he's fully focused on looking forward to help his team in any way he can.
And although some of the coaches and players have joked with Thorpe over the past year that there was perhaps a Graduate Assistant, water boy, or equipment manager position open for the injured wide receiver, none of those three roles are on the list of spots Thorpe sees himself in for the fall.
But the list of open positions he may actually fill is not a short one.
"With coach (Gunter) Brewer we have no idea where we're going to be," Thorpe said. "One week we're outside and one week, we're inside. But mainly I've been working outside."
"Especially with this offense, we decided to go right and left, and so that forces some of the outside guys to be in certain rotations as a slot. (Brewer) tells us all the time in the receiving room that after the first scrimmage, I might be a slot and Kendrick (Singleton) and (Ryan) Switzer might be an outside and Quinshad (Davis) might be a slot. So we're just trying to learn the offense in its entirety and go with the flow."
Thorpe has also spent time this year learning to go with flow in overcoming his foot injury. After breaking his left foot on the third day of training camp in 2012, he missed the entire fall season. Thorpe then re-injured the same break in February.
"My foot started to crack just a little bit again (while) just doing a shuttle drill but I probably would say that I was just doing too much on it," he said.
"After they finally did clear me, it was kind of like when you finally let a kid loose and I just started doing seven-on-seven's, and running routes, and whatever else and not being smart and giving it enough rest and so I ended up just cracking it a little bit more (in February). The only difference was didn't break foot all the way through."
Thorpe then had surgery, where doctors took a bone graf from Thorpe's hip and placed a screw longer than the first he'd had in his foot.
Since then, he has been taking the right precautions, he says, and in light of the possibility of re-injury and is glad to have the "monkey off (his) back," now that he's through five days of camp.
"I'm kind of just realizing that it's going to come back with time and there's no need to rush things and just kind of force, force, force it. I'm with the ones and I'm working," he said. "I'm having reps each day and progressing and it's just one of those things where I'm just glad to be back out there and help the team in any way I can."
When Thorpe first spent time with coach Larry Fedora and his staff in the spring of 2012, he did have time to begin shifting into the high gear of the "smart, fast, physical," offense, but those practices were the only full-force one's he had before this August under the new UNC regime.
Thorpe had a successful freshman season for in 2011 that included All-ACC honorable mention for his league-high 26.7 yards averaged on kick-off return, but he said that returning to play under the pace and fitness requirements of this year's program feels as new as it did in 2012.
"It's definitely something that's beyond me, coming from the pro-style," he said. "I had a little taste of it in spring (2012) but there's nothing that can really prepare you for how fast we go except for repipin' it, reppin' it, reppin' it. Each day I'm getting better."
"It brings new challenges when we put pads on after I'm used to going in helmets and shoulder pads, and so now I'm just kind of getting my wind, starting to get my second wind so hopefully I can carry that over."
Thorpe is confident in his ability to catch the ball - "catching the ball is easy and running after is just something that happens afterwards," he said - but his focus for now is on mastering the ability to run routes and work around defenses as effectively as he can.
"I haven't been able to do some of the things I like to do, and like I said I'm working back into it, but I've became a lot smarter," Thorpe said. "Getting open, getting in routes, and that's just the main thing - all the catches will come, it's just a matter or getting open or doing the right things, that's the easy part is catching and running after. I'm real comfortable with the way I've been picking up and catching on to things and that's just my big deal."
Fedora also mentioned having confidence in the way the sophomore has made is return, but noted he did not want to "brag on him too much," fully recognizing that injury is never too far away.
For Thorpe, the biggest key to an effective return is working through the mental part of pushing his body appropriately - maximizing the capable potential he has now that he's fully healthy.
"I personally don't feel as if I'm as explosive as I was in cutting off of my left foot, that's just a mental thing," he said. "Each day I'm starting to plant harder and harder and getting up field faster, but it's nothing that I'm too concerned with because I know that it's just a time thing.
It's just a matter of being able to trust myself."
Another factor in Thorpe's adjustment to the fast pace offense comes from the fact that he is about twenty pounds heavier than he was the last time he took the field in a game for the Tar Heels.
"Everyone jokes with me in the locker room, saying I look more like a running back now," he said. "At one point, I was a little bit too heavy. Whenever you don't run as much, you just kind of lift and lift and lift. I just started bulking up and the more I started running, I started to shed a few pounds that I definitely didn't need and I started to feel good again."
At his heaviest, Thorpe said he weighed around 220 pounds but is staying around a more manageable 210. He did note that returning to training camp with the extra weight made him feel like he was kind of "waddling, at one point," but he's settling into the strengthened physique, opening up his stride and feeling more fluent in his movement.
And the jokes about Thorpe's heavier build are even more fitting to the expectations for the season than the one's made within the North Carolina program about Thorpe merely seeking to fill an open position.
"My expectations are to come back and really make an impact on the game. We're losing (Giovani Bernard) and (Jonathan Cooper) and Travis Bond and some on the defensive side," he said. "My thing is just come back in, do what's asked of me, and do it to the best of my ability, just make as many plays as possible."
For Thorpe, who is listed as and working with the wide receivers, there is one larger and more obvious running back position replacement needed - that of kick-off and punt returner Bernard.
But the role is Thorpe's specialties and playing the kick-returner position is one he's been most comfortable coming back to.
"That was probably the easiest thing, that's something I've just always done since I was four years old, (kick off) and punt return," he said. "Coach Fedora is a really big guy when it comes to punt return, that was probably the hardest thing is trying to I have huge shoes to fill after Gio with the NC State return and him doing it against Elon, and pretty much him week in and week out."
For Thorpe, following Bernard's kick return standard means working to match talent, but the sophomore is also working from a mindset based on the philosophy that success will also come from capitalized situations
"It's just one of those things where when the opportunity arises, make as many plays as you can," he said.