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December 7, 2012

2013 Comeback Stories?

Year one of the Larry Fedora era at North Carolina is complete, so it's time to begin looking ahead to key issues facing the Tar Heels for spring practice.

A major area to watch as preparations begin for 2013 will be the recovery of almost a dozen players who missed all or parts of last season due to injuries.

Of course, we don't know much about the status of those players at this moment due to Fedora's policy of not commenting on injured players.

But of those listed as out for the season on the final injury report of 2012, defensive back Sam Smiley, linebacker Phillip Williamson and wide receiver T.J. Thorpe are expected to be back on field when spring drills begin.

Thorpe's return will be especially welcome for an offense that is losing No. 2 receiver and four-year letterwinner Erik Highsmith.

The redshirt sophomore from Durham was expected to play a major role in UNC's new spread offense in 2012 after leading the ACC and setting a school record for kickoff return yardage as a true freshman.

But Thorpe suffered a foot injury running a simple pass route on the third day of preseason practice and missed the entire year.

If healthy, Thorpe will be another player in UNC's offensive arsenal who can go the distance on any play, whether he's catching, running or returning the football.

Two other potentially valuable pass catchers who were on the shelf for much or all 2012 are receiver Reggie Wilkins and tight end Sean Fitzpatrick.

Both were expected to make a contributions before injuries sent them to the sidelines.

Wilkins, who'll be a junior next fall, didn't even make it out of preseason camp before being felled by an undisclosed injury.

Wilkins is similar to Thorpe in that he's a speedy, elusive athlete capable of delivering big plays at any time.

He appeared in five games as a redshirt freshman in 2011 and made five catches for 53 yards. But much more can be expected from a healthy Wilkins, who is one of the squad's fastest players.

Fitzpatrick spent preseason camp working with the first- and second-team offensive units. He then saw action on special teams and at tight end in five of UNC's first seven games. But an injury during the Miami game cut short Fitzpatrick's season.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder is likely to be behind Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb when he returns to action.

But Fitzpatrick has the size, hands and better-than average speed to make a contribution in the passing game.

In-season surgery derailed receiver Kedrick Davis' true freshman season. Davis, who turned a 10.47-second time in winning the state 100-meter dash as a junior, was one of the state's most electrifying prep football players as a senior at Charlotte's O'Berry High School when he averaged 25.7 yards per catch.

With players like Thorpe and Wilkins sidelined during preseason camp, Davis got the opportunity to work at receiver and as a kick returner.

But he never saw any game action and eventually had surgery for an undisclosed injury.

Add Thorpe, Wilkins, Fitzpatrick and Davis to a receiving corps already featuring Quinshad Davis, Sean Tapley, Eric Ebron, Nic Platt, Damien Washington and Jack Tabb, and the Tar Heels look pretty strong in that area for 2013.

Three other offensive players whose status for spring and next season remain delicate are running back Travis Riley, offensive lineman T.J. Leifheit and kicker Miller Snyder.

Riley suffered the second catastrophic knee injury of his football career in the fifth game of the season against Idaho. He tore both the ACL and MCL in his right knee, so it's unlikely he'll be ready for spring.

Leifheit's UNC career has been hindered by ankle and back problems. Once a highly rated blocking prospect, the 6-7, 305-pounder has been limited to a single game in three seasons.

But if those problems clear up, he could become a factor up front next fall as a junior.

Back problems have also plagued Snyder during his brief time in Chapel Hill. He had surgery during the 2011 season and has had the past year to heal as Casey Barth and Thomas Moore handled the placekicking duties.

A return to the form of his senior year at Myers Park High in Charlotte, however, could put Snyder in the competition with Moore for starting duties this spring.

Over on defense, getting Smiley back will certainly be a blessing to UNC's secondary.

As a redshirt freshman, he logged five starts between strong safety and RAM and played in seven games overall, making 26 tackles.

But the real bonus for the Tar Heel defense will be if junior linebacker Darius Lipford can return to action.

Lipford had established himself as a starter and a rising star at an outside linebacker position as a sophomore in 2011 when he suffered a torn ACL in the Independence Bowl loss against Missouri to end the season. He re injured the left knee in July while rehabbing and missed the entire 2012 season.

Some envision a healthy Lipford being the ideal athlete to play the hybrid linebacker-defensive end spot in UNC's 4-2-5 defense. Regardless of where he plays, Lipford would be a shot in the arm to a unit losing both its two main leaders in linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.

Williamson is another athletic linebacker whose recovery could enhance the defensive depth.

The recovering players amount to a good portion of a recruiting class.

And in a year where UNC's recruiting class will be smaller by five players due to NCAA sanctions, getting all or some of them back on the playing field could have a major impact on the 2013 season.
 



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