Maturity shows as UNC's T.J. Thorpe errs, owns up

Sep. 04, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

Jordan High graduate T.J. Thorpe wrote “December 26, 2011” on the tape around his wrist for North Carolina’s season opener last Thursday at South Carolina.

After a broken foot forced the sophomore to miss the 2012 season and all of spring camp, the date was a reminder of how long it had been since he’d played a college football game.

Except this time there would be no storybook return.

On his first opportunity to field a kick, the all-ACC returner from 2011 fumbled a South Carolina punt, committing the only turnover for either team in the Gamecocks’ 27-10 victory.

“I’m sure there were some butterflies and some anxious moments going through his mind,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “You wish you would have all of that out of you but he didn’t obviously and it happened on national TV.”

Still, it’s what came next that Thorpe said showed his maturity, and offered a glimpse into Fedora’s philosophy as well.

Thorpe said that in high school, he would have blamed something else for his mistake. Instead, he took full responsibility for not looking the ball into his body.

“I might have been like, ‘the guy touched me,’ or ‘I jammed my finger,’ or something — anything,” Thorpe said. “Something happened that made me do it, instead of owning up to it. (Now) as a man and a mature individual, I feel like that’s something that I really took pride in.”

UNC’s defense forced another punt after the turnover. Instead of switching to explosive freshman Ryan Switzer, Fedora sent Thorpe back out for the next punt return opportunity.

“If you take a guy out in that situation, you’re telling him that you have no confidence in him,” Fedora said. “We talk about all the time how you can’t let one play affect the next play. You’ve got to play the next play. So if I jerk him out and don’t give him that opportunity, I don’t think that I’m practicing what I preach. So it was, ‘Go back out there and do what you do.’”

That next punt sailed out of bounds, but Thorpe did post a 20-yard return on his only other chance.

“We have other people who can do it,” said Thorpe, who led the ACC in kickoff return average as a freshman. “And the fact that he had the confidence to throw me back out there, in a game situation like that, speaks a lot.’

Thorpe also caught four passes — doubling his season total as a freshman — though they only went for nine yards as UNC utilized a quick-throw offense to counter Heisman candidate Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of South Carolina’s talented defensive line.

Thorpe prides himself on handling kicks — “I can catch them with my eyes closed, more than one, one-handed, whatever,” Thorpe said — and thought the time off may have affected his focus on the first return.

Thorpe broke his foot on the third day of training camp last year, and then cracked the bone again during offseason conditioning in February.

But the writing on his wrist also helped him move on once the mistake was made.

“I just put it there as something to keep my mind on, that this is the first time you’re back,” Thorpe said. “Things aren’t always going to go your way because it’s been a long time since you played, so just remember that and give an effort whether things go my way or not.

“It’s just something that always motivates me to play as hard as I can, because you never know when there could be another time when I’m not playing again.”

Despite the turnover, Fedora said that Thorpe will be the starting punt returner Saturday when UNC hosts Middle Tennessee State (12:30 p.m., WLFL).