On the third day of training camp in 2012, Thorpe fractured his left foot while running a routine route without contact. The Durham, N.C. native was back running at top speed by early November before ultimately being cleared by the athletic training staff later that month.
Thorpe went to work preparing for spring practice with admittedly too much zeal.
“I probably was doing a little bit too much on it when they finally did clear me,” Thorpe said. “It was just one of those things like when you let a kid loose. I started doing 7-on-7s and running routes and whatever else, not being smart and giving it enough rest.”
On Feb. 12 during preparation for Blue Dawn, UNC’s winter conditioning program, Thorpe felt pain in his left foot while doing a shuttle drill. A trip to the trainer’s office confirmed that his foot had started to crack again.
Doctors took a bone graft from his left hip and attached it to his foot with a longer screw, according to Thorpe.
This time he took more appropriate precautionary measures to ensure that his foot would be completely healed by the start of training camp. Thorpe told reporters on Monday that he’s not as explosive cutting off his left foot was he was prior to the injury, but believes that’s a mental hurdle as he’s been able to plant harder and get up the field quicker with each practice.
“[He’s] doing a really nice job,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “It’s early for me to say anything about him because I don’t want to say anything about him, but he’s doing a nice job. And he looks good. He looks really good doing it. It’s just been a long time since he’s done it.”
Thorpe entered last season’s training camp weighing 195 pounds, but following his injury, his conditioning was hampered while his ability to hit the weights was not.
He quickly bulked up to 215 pounds and said he felt like he was “waddling” at one point after putting on the additional weight.
He’s back down to 205 pounds on his 6-foot frame.
Fedora praised Thorpe on Monday for his rehab and recovery work.
“I would have to say he’s handled it really well,” Fedora said. “He did everything he was asked. He rehabbed. He did what he was supposed to do. He took care of his classes. He did what we wanted him to do and he’s back out here on the field.”
Due to missing most of training camp last August and all of spring practice this year, Thorpe hasn’t been able to assimilate into the up-tempo offense as quickly as his teammates.
“There’s nothing really that can prepare you for how fast we go except for repping it and repping it,” Thorpe said. “Each day I’m getting better. It brings me challenges when we put pads on after I’m used to going in helmets and shoulder pads and so now I’m just starting to get my second wind and hopefully I can carry that over.”
Thorpe is currently running with the ones at the “Z” position – otherwise known as the flanker – although wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer prefers to rotate his receivers for versatility purposes.
“With Coach Brewer, we have no idea where we’re going to be,” Thorpe said. “One week we’re outside, one week we’re inside. Mainly I’ve been working outside. Especially with this offense, we decided to go right and left and so that forces some of the outside guys to be in certain formations as a slot.”
As expected, Thorpe said the easiest transition in his return has been in his kickoff return duties. He set a UNC record with 960 return yards in 2011, breaking Brandon Tate’s 2007 mark, and was a finalist for the Johnny Rodgers Award, which goes to the nation’s top returner.
Thorpe also earned 2011 honorable mention All-ACC honors after leading the league with a 26.7 yards-per-return average.
His integration into the punt return team has proven most challenging thus far, where he’s batting with fifth-year senior Terry Shankle and true freshmen Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan.
Thorpe expressed some frustration that he hasn’t been able to do some things that he would like to while he works back into the flow – such as getting in and out of routes and finding open holes - but admitted that he’s comfortable with his pace working back in.
Finishing Saturday’s practice represented yet another mental hurdle for Thorpe and confirmation that his injury is in the past.
“It’s a blessing,” Thorpe said. “Every day is not guaranteed. Football isn’t everything, so just to be out here doing something I enjoy is really something that I cherish.”