Different Shade of Blue

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Few players on North Carolina's roster have experienced more twists and turns in their career than A.J. Blue. A healthier and more athletic version of No. 15 looks to find his niche in the Tar Heels' new offense this fall.

Blue's college career took a detour before it ever got started. The duel-threat quarterback, hailing from Dallas, N.C., had to attend Hargrave Military Academy in order to raise his SAT score and meet UNC's academic qualifications. He excelled in that prep setting and began his freshman season in 2009.

Blue played in his first six career games for the Tar Heels, but faced another setback when he tore the ACL, MCL and PCL in his left knee against Georgia Southern. The injury was so severe that it cost Blue the remainder of the 2009 season as well as the entire 2010 campaign.

He practiced with the scout team in 2010 while rehabbing from his knee injury. During that time, the decision was made for Blue to switch from quarterback to running back. After fighting back from such a severe injury, the change was another plot twist in Blue's young career. However, rather than dwell in the change, Blue turned his experience as a quarterback into an advantage.

"I've been a quarterback all my life and just recently switching it helped me learn the coverages," Blue told reporters this week. "You know when the [weakside] linebacker is stacked over the end there's going to be some type of blitz and that just helps me notice things a lot quicker pre-snap. I learned it quicker when I was at quarterback and now that I'm at running back, it's not easy, but it's a lot less challenging. You know the tendencies, you know how the defense works after a couple of series and it's just become a little bit more natural now."

Last fall, Blue eased into his new role as a running back. Playing behind Gio Bernard and Ryan Houston, he ran for 138 yards and a touchdown as a red-shirt sophomore. Blue appreciated the experience he gained in the backfield, but knows he could have contributed more. With the mindset of a shifty running back, but the body of a bruiser, Blue never felt comfortable with his role.

When first-year head coach Larry Fedora was hired in December, he brought with him a no-huddle spread offense. Big backs are not a priority in his fast-paced system, so Blue was no longer conflicted as to what type of runner he needed to be. If he wanted to play, Blue needed to get faster.

"It's definitely mandatory," Blue said. "That's the type of offense we want to be. We want to be fast, we want to slash defenses, we want them to be gasping for air and I feel like the faster I am, the better chance I got for the defense to be gasping for air."

Blue weighed 234 pounds in early June. In order to break into the lineup and gain speed, he needed to lose a significant amount of weight. Blue is now down to 212 pounds and hopes to be below 210 by the season opener next Saturday against Elon.

"I tell you what, the guy came back from the summer I think 15 pounds down," Fedora said last week. "We asked him to cut some weight and he did. And he's a whole different player in fall camp. That guy has probably been, in my opinion, as far as guys that were with us in the spring, he's probably made the most ground in what he's accomplished this camp."

Blue, along with many of his teammates, credits new strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez for his weight loss. Coach "Lou" put Blue and others through vigorous workouts all summer long, but the junior understands it was for the best.

With defenses forced to focus on defending the pass in Fedora's spread offense, the scheme is designed to create large lanes in the running game. Hernandez's program made Blue fast enough to hit the gaps before they close up.

Not only will Blue be looked to for contributions on the field, but he also assumes a leadership role as the oldest true running back on the team. With all Blue has been through since his senior year of high school, teammates respect his journey and understand he has plenty of advice to offer.

"It's just something that came natural," Blue said. "I've kind of been on the back end since I've been here with the injury or whatnot, but it's just always been there. I finally got my confidence back so now I feel like I can speak up when need be. In the past, we had leaders like T.J. Yates, we had Bruce [Carter], we had Johnny White, Shaun [Draughn] and those boys and stepping up and speaking to the team over them just didn't seem right at the time.

"Now I feel a lot better, a lot more mature, a lot smarter and I feel like I can lead the team."

Injuries, position changes, weight loss and a coaching change have defined Blue's career thus far. Now that those variables are under control, he's looking to make his mark on the football field.

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