UNC sophomore A.J. Blue is showing a great attitude and work ethic this summer as he looks to get back from reconstructive knee surgery following an injury he suffered last October.
"I don't think there's a person in our entire football organization that hasn't just marveled (with Blue)," UNC head coach Butch Davis last week. "His attitude has been spectacular."
Kids that have gone through less than Blue could have really let such a thing derail them, but all the while he's kept a smile on his face and his head up.
Perhaps Blue's journey to Chapel Hill, which took quite a bit more than it does for a lot of players, gave him perspective about how fortunate he was just to be where he was.
A star quarterback at the prep level who led Dallas (N.C.) North Gaston to the NCHSAA 3-A state title game back in 2007, Blue was in a difficult environment throughout his high school years.
In a setting without a great deal of structure in his life, he struggled academically until his senior year.
Failing to qualify out of high school, Blue did what he had to do for a year at Hargrave Military Academy---hitting the books and taking full advantage of the structured environment and the unique opportunity he had to get an education and a football career.
He came to Chapel Hill as a mature true freshman and saw immediate action last year---including several snaps at quarterback---and looked remarkably fluid in his brief time at running back in Carolina's win over Georgia Southern before the play that changed it all.
Running near the left hashes late in Carolina's 42-12 triumph over the Eagles, Blue went down awkwardly and suffered an extreme injury, requiring surgical work on all three of the major ligaments in his left knee.
"It is sad when somebody gets hurt---it is crushing, it is demoralizing---but the way he has approached the rehab and the way he has approached this has been spectacular," said Davis.
Blue underwent surgery after the swelling went down in his knee last fall, and there's a strong likelihood he will wind up redshirting the 2010 season as he continues to recover.
However, in practice this August he's been able to run and do much of what the team is doing aside of live physical contact.
Blue hasn't been working out in any of Carolina's scrimmages or live practice plays, but he's been doing a significant portion of the team's individual drills in his efforts to continue learning the offense.
"To be honest, he's practicing about 75 percent of everything that we're doing," Davis said. "He's doing all of the 'individual' (portion of practice), and a lot of the 'seven-on-seven.'"
"We're just being really guardedly cautious about exposing him to the potential of any kind of injury from a scrimmage situation, but I will tell you he's moving the meter and he's working hard to rehab," Davis added.
The mere fact he's back practicing on any level speaks to Blue's athletic ability and his willingness to do whatever it takes to work his way back onto the field.
"Most ACL and the type of knee injuries that he had, people will tell you sometimes it's a 12 to 18 month process. And here he is, less than nine months away, practicing," said Davis.
Instead of giving him work at running back where he could potentially put greater risk to his rehabilitation, Blue has been working exclusively at quarterback this summer.
He'll likely continue to do so as the season progresses.
"We just felt like for him to contribute for him for this football team given the state of his knee that it would be better for him to focus at least this (on quarterback), and then we'll see," Davis says.
"Right now our No. 1 objective is just to make sure that we keep him safe and keep him moving in a progressive manner towards becoming 100 percent healthy, and playing quarterback right now is the best thing that he can do for himself and the team."
UNC has three scholarship players other than Blue on the current roster and two 2011 commitments in Everett Golson and Marquise Williams, but those that saw him play quarterback in high school and at Hargrave know what Blue can do under center and his potential to make plays at quarterback.
"I just hope he gets a chance to play a little quarterback at UNC, because I mean, the kid can play," said former Hargrave head coach and current Texas Tech assistant Robert Prunty, who coached Blue back in 2008.
"And the thing about it, A.J. is a good kid," Prunty added. "He's a good guy. He's got a good attitude, very team-oriented."
"He's just a great kid. A.J. is a great kid."
The biggest key for the Tar Heel coaches as they evaluate Blue this summer and beyond is how quickly he can get back the strength and flexibility in his knee, along with his ability to make all the necessary cuts and take all the necessary hits.
"The better he becomes---when he becomes 100 percent and totally well---does he have his same burst of speed back? Does he have the durability? Can he take a blow on that knee?" Davis said.
While his productivity for the 2010 Tar Heels will likely be limited at best, there's no question that Blue is going to be a big part of the offense's future plans.
With several seniors in the UNC backfield this fall, Blue was not going to be nearly as pivotal to the team's success this year as he could potentially be in 2011, when he might be in position to be a key member of the offense in several different capacities and also on special teams.
That's why it's important for Blue to take advantage of his limited opportunities in practice this year while continuing to develop his knowledge of the offense.
If he can heal up while keeping his great attitude and mentality, Blue's future is certainly bright down the road for the Tar Heels.
"It's just a great story because he's such a great kid," said Davis.