Thorpe Returning in Limited Role

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Junior wide receiver T.J. Thorpe will return to No. 25 North Carolina’s lineup on Saturday for the first time since breaking his left foot for a third time six weeks ago.

“I don’t know if I’ll be on the field taking a majority of the reps, but I know I’ll be out there with the guys,” Thorpe told reporters following Tuesday’s practice. “I will be dressed out. God willing, if this [ankle] stays up through the week, then I’ll be out there.”

Thorpe first broke his foot on the third day of training camp in 2012 while running a route without any contact involved. Doctors inserted a screw into his foot and the Durham, N.C. native was eventually cleared to return to practice in November 2012.

In February 2013, Thorpe once again felt pain in his left foot while doing a shuttle drill in preparation for Blue Dawn, UNC’s winter conditioning program. Doctors took a bone graft from his left hip and attached it to his foot with a longer screw.

In early August, Thorpe fractured his left foot for the third time in two years.

Thorpe’s initial reaction upon hearing the news was universal in its frustration: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Due to the long screw that was inserted during the previous surgery, his foot didn’t break all of the way through. The fracture stopped at the screw, which stayed in place.

That allowed for the prompt recovery, as a third surgery wasn’t needed. It took roughly five weeks for the bone to solidify around the screw enough to clear Thorpe for workouts.

“The doctor did say that it’s something that can happen over and over again,” Thorpe said. “It’s something that’s common in receivers. It just so happens that I’m the one who is going through it.”

Thorpe has experienced some discomfort in his foot since returning to practice last week, although that was an anticipated byproduct of the healing process.

“He’s got a screw in there; it’s stable,” wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer said. “It’s going to do what it’s going to do. The doctors have seen a guy break it as many as 10 times and then they’ve seen guys never break it again. So really, you’re at the misfortune, or fortune, of whatever happens.”

Thorpe said he’s leaning on his faith to block out any hesitancy involved with the potential for a fourth break. The doctors have assured him there’s no need to hold back in an attempt to prevent the foot from fracturing again.

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be; it will break,” Thorpe said. “And if not, then we’ll be alright.”

Thorpe, who set a school record with 960 return yards as a freshman in 2011, played in 12 games last season. He caught 24 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns, while also returning 20 kickoffs for 424 yards.

Despite that level of experience, Thorpe said he felt like a freshman upon returning to practice last week.

“My thing was to each day get better and better,” Thorpe said. “Don’t rush anything; be patient. Let them work you back in because it’s a long process and we have a long season ahead of us. It was a blessing to be back out here with my teammates. I’m tired of watching and doing the beach with Coach Lou [Hernandez].”

Thorpe, who was listed on the preseason depth chart as the starting flanker, provides a different type of ability in UNC’s no-huddle spread offense.

“He brings a body type that we need,” Brewer said. “That’s a quick body, but a guy that’s got a lot of strength. He’s a 6-0, 6-1 guy; he’s different than the tall, rangy guys. He can get in and out of cuts, but yet he’s extremely strong. He’s 195-205.

“And he’s been around the game a long time, so he’s got a lot of experience. That’s something you can’t replace.”

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