Fully healthy for the first time in over a year and a half this past spring, UNC rising junior wide receiver T.J. Thorpe staked his claim for a more prominent role within the Tar Heel offense.
Though UNC is returning four of its top six pass catchers from a year ago, including Thorpe, Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer, and Bug Howard, the departures of Eric Ebron and Sean Tapley have created a dynamic where there will be a lot more balls to be caught, and the returnees have to fill the gap.
"I would say I'm more the 'run after the catch' guy," Thorpe told Tar Heel Illustrated in a recent interview. "Me and 'Switz are probably those two guys on the field. You can see I would say where my yards after catch, being able to take a hit and keep moving forward, or make a guy miss in space. And even sometimes stretch the field with our speed. And I feel that's where this offense helps, and it lets us flourish as two receivers."
Playing in 12 games a season ago as a redshirt sophomore, Thorpe caught 24 passes for 267 yards (11.1 yards per reception) and two touchdowns, but he and his teammates will be the first to admit that he wasn't nearly as healthy and prepared as he was this spring.
Thorpe was an immediate contributor for UNC as a true freshman back in 2011 but during training camp in 2012---Larry Fedora's first summer in Chapel Hill---he suffered a broken foot and missed the entire season, necessitating a redshirt year.
Then in the spring of 2013 he had another setback, which limited him until just prior to the start of the season. And even though he played through the 2013 season, he wasn't nearly as strong as he is now, with nearly two full years removed from the broken foot.
It was evident watching Thorpe running this spring that he's closer than ever to the player he was when he first arrived in Chapel Hill.
And assuming he can stay healthy, he's going to be in position to be a key contributor to the 2014 Tar Heels.
"It's a blessing (being healthy again)," Thorpe told us. "My parents, my family, we're all real happy about me just being injury-free. I always complained, 'I never had any injuries until I got here (to North Carolina),' and then it seemed once I got one it was like a chain reaction."
"Just being healthy and moving around, all the players all the time tell me, 'The old T.J. is back. He's back. You're doing what you used to.' It just makes me feel real good that finally people are starting to notice it, and I'm getting back to where I need to be."
While time has been Thorpe's biggest ally in his recovery, he says that he's also been focusing on eating right and taking care of his body, while also placing significantly more emphasis on stretching.
And if the spring was any evidence, that extra detail to his nutrition and health has paid off.
"I took it upon myself to eat right, stretch when I'm not doing anything. Make sure my body is feeling good from practice to practice. And it's showing with me losing weight, building muscle, moving faster, and just feeling in better shape," he said.
When Thorpe first arrived in Chapel Hill as North Carolina's all-time single-season leader in kickoff return touchdowns at the high school level---he returned five kickoffs for touchdowns at Durham (N.C.) Jordan as a junior in 2009---he was an instant-impact threat on special teams reminiscent of former Tar Heel star Brandon Tate.
Thorpe, in fact, earned honorable mention All-ACC honors in 2011 after setting a UNC school record with 960 yards (surpassing Tate) and averaging 26.7 yards per attempt, including a 100-yard touchdown return at Clemson---just the second 100-yard kickoff return score in school history.
Last season Thorpe settled back in as a kickoff return man for the Tar Heels, returning seven kicks for 153 yards, including a long return of 45 yards.
And while those numbers weren't as stellar as his freshman totals, he's going to have a golden opportunity this coming fall to have a breakthrough year in the return game, just as Switzer did as a punt returner this past autumn.
In fact, with Thorpe back at full strength returning kickoffs and Switzer handling punts, UNC has arguably one of the more explosive tandem of specialists in the ACC if not the entire country.
"T.J. Thorpe, he's continuing to get better. Still recovering from missing a year, but T.J. is going to be great," said Switzer of Thorpe's spring progress.
"We just care about each other in the receiving corps," added Thorpe.
As one of the veterans in the UNC receiving corps, Thorpe took it upon himself this spring not only to work hard each day in practice, but also to serve as an example to his younger teammates with the way he carries himself.
A big part of that was following the instruction of receivers coach Gunter Brewer and taking advantage of his tutelage.
"We understand now that at the end of the day, Coach Brewer is of course the yeller of the coaches, but we've decided to listen and take his coaching, knowing that he knows what he's talking about. Just listen to him," Thorpe said. "He's coached some of the greatest receivers in the game, and with that being said, you can see the receivers' play starting to increase."
If Thorpe's play increases this coming season it could be a tremendous boon to the Tar Heels, who already have an assortment of playmakers but could sure use another one to offset its losses and continue building as an offense.