CHAPEL HILL – As UNC Football is feverishly pushing through training camp and addressing depth issues, two potential Tar Heel starters are making strides after battling back from injury and could prove to fill the gaps on both sides of the ball.
UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora says he is carefully watching both Junior Darius Lipford and Sophomore T.J. Thorpe to evaluate the progress they’ve made post-recovery.
“It is early for me to say anything about him [Thorpe]—I don’t want to say anything about him because he is doing a nice job,” Fedora said on day five of UNC Training Camp. “He looks really good doing it, and it has just been a long time since he has done it. It is the same thing with Darius Lipford. I mean he is making plays, but I don’t want to brag on him too quickly. Still, it has been a long time since they have been out there where the bullets are flying.”
Injury and a lack of depth at certain positions is something Fedora says is a constant concern.
“You are always an ankle away at any position of being depleted, I mean really,” he says. “It is never enough. I don’t know any football coach out there who feels good about depth.”
Lipford, standing at 6’3’, 240 lbs, was red-shirted for the 2012 season after suffering a knee injury during the 2011 Independence Bowl and then re-injuring it during last summer’s workouts. Now, he says he feels back to 100 percent. Earlier in the summer, Fedora called him “freakishly athletic.”
“Our strength and conditioning staff got me prepared for camp. My knee feels great, no doubt about. I feel as strong and as fast as I used to,” Lipford says.
Lipford says the silver lining of the injury was observing the game and learning from past leaders like Bruce Carter, Kevin Riddick and Zack Brown. He says now it is his turn to push the “young boys.”
Still Lipford hasn’t played since the Butch Davis Era and is transitioning from linebacker to the bandit position.
“Keeping the defense up for the high-tempo offense is the biggest difference,” Lipford says. “That is the main adjustment for me because the last time I played, we were in pro-style.”
Fedora has to fill a another void on the offensive side—the punt returner. Giovanni Bernard, the No. 37 NFL Draft pick, dominated as a running back for UNC, but also doubled as a punt returner, most notably returning the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds against rival North Carolina State last season.
Thorpe was one of several players who returned punts during summer practice. The wide receiver suffered a broken foot early in preseason practice last year, missed the entire 2012 season, and then cracked his foot in February.
Thorpe says is not as explosive as he once was, but believes it’s a mental issue rather than a physical one. He also has the daunting challenge of adjusting to Fedora’s no-huddle spread offense.
“There is nothing that can prepare you for how fast we go except for repping it, repping it, repping it. Each day, I am getting better,” Thorpe says.
The Heels have a tall task of living up to last year’s record-setting season. Entering his second season with the Heels, Fedora has records in scoring and total offense, won eight games, and could have claimed a division title if it weren’t for lingering NCAA sanctions.
There’s also Jadeveon Clowney, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and the rest of the Gamecocks awaiting the Heels in Columbia.