The play haunted Tapley over the final nine games of the 2011 season and into the offseason. With Erik Highsmith sidelined due to injury, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound receiver earned the starting nod against the Yellow Jackets on Sept. 24, opposite of X-receiver Dwight Jones.
Quarterback Bryn Renner didn’t throw a ball in Tapley’s direction during the first half, leaving the Jacksonville, Fla. native wondering when the first pass would come his way. He felt the pressure of the moment slowly build until, finally, Renner found him on a 1st-and-10 play in the final minute of the third quarter.
“It was a curl route and I was wide open,” Tapley told reporters following practice this week. “I know I was wide open. I was so excited about getting the ball that I thought about running before I caught the ball. I took my eyes off the ball and it slipped right through my hands. It was tough.”
It was the only pass thrown to him against the Yellow Jackets. It was also his lone start of the season, as Highsmith returned the following week.
That dropped pass remained fresh in his mind during offseason work as he made a concerted effort to watch the ball all of the way in. It was a reminder to establish a solid foundation in fundamentals.
On the first drive of the 2012 season opener against Elon, Renner’s third pass went to Tapley over the middle, resulting in a six-yard reception for a first down.
Tapley labeled that play as a “confidence booster” to set the tone for his second season playing in a Tar Heel uniform. By judging his performance since then, it’s appropriate to label that catch as the second takeoff point in his career.
If the drop last season re-emphasized the fundamentals, that first catch confirmed that his hard work had elevated his game, as much mentally as physically.
“At the beginning of the season, I was trying to be patient and taking one play at a time,” Tapley said. “I was waiting for the opportunity to come and I seized it.”
Tapley’s first career touchdown went for 62 yards on a short pass against East Carolina. The business major is second on the team in receiving yards (281) despite being fifth in receptions (14). That’s good for 20.1 yards-per-catch average, trailing running back Romar Morris (22.0).
Tapley’s three receiving touchdowns are tied for the most on the team along with tight end Eric Ebron.
The sophomore’s biggest play of the season, though, occurred on special teams. Trailing Virginia Tech 7-0 on Saturday, Tapley returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.
“Like Coach always says, we need that person that makes the game-changing play and I feel like I’m one of those guys,” Tapley said. “We might be down or we might be up, but he’s expecting us to make those plays.”
Tapley has returned 11 kickoffs for 303 yards this season, good a 27.6 average (22nd nationally).
“He’s made a couple of big plays the last couple of weeks and you saw that in the spring,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “He worked really hard through spring. He’s a kid that doesn’t talk a whole lot. He’s really kind of quiet. He just goes about his business every single day and works hard.
“You don’t ever have to worry about Tap. He’s not a guy that you’ve got to continue to push hard, because he’s preparing himself each week and it’s all paying off for him.”
That preparation, combined with a better understanding of the spread schemes that Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson have put in place, has allowed Tapley to adapt and excel at his A-back position.
“He’s getting faster,” Anderson said. “I think his confidence is growing. The more confident you are, the faster you tend to play. He’s starting to play better both with the ball in his hands and without the ball in his hands…
“He plays harder and faster than I think he was playing in the first few weeks. I think there was still a lot of thinking going on in his head and he understands what we’re doing better. It’s starting to slow down for him so he can play faster and that’s just helping him be a lot more productive player.”
Through six games, Tapley has totaled 584 all-purpose yards, good for a 97.3 yards-per-game average.
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