By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — From North Carolina, Florida and Ohio, they came to the University of Virginia and enrolled in classes this month — one in graduate school, the other two as first-year students.
For UVa’s football team, their arrival was welcome news. T.J. Thorpe, Grant Polk and C.J. Stalker began the winter conditioning program with the rest of the Cavaliers last week and, starting in March, will take part in spring practice.
A 6-0, 200-pound wide receiver and return specialist, Thorpe has experienced something similar — in Chapel Hill, N.C. He’s a transfer from the University of North Carolina, from which he graduated last month, and he’ll use his final season of college eligibility this fall.
“I’m going to make the best of whatever opportunities come my way,” said Thorpe, whose UNC career was marred by foot injuries. “I definitely want to make my last one a good one.”
For Polk, a 6-6, 295-pound offensive lineman from Punta Gorda, Fla., about 55 miles from Sarasota, and Stalker, a 6-2, 226-pound middle linebacker from West Chester, Ohio, near Cincinnati, this is all new.
Each graduated from high school last month. Now they’re living together in a UVa dorm, taking college classes and training with more experienced teammates.
“Thrown right into the fire,” Stalker said.
That was by choice. Stalker and Polk could have remained in high school and waited until summer to enroll at UVa with the rest of the incoming class. But Stalker hopes to attend medical school one day, and the opportunity to “get a head start in academics is huge,” he said. Polk, who’s interested in studying business, wanted to enroll early for the same reason.
“And then there’s obviously the football aspect,” Stalker said. By going through spring ball, Polk and Stalker will get a jump on their classmates and improve their chances of playing as true freshmen in the fall.
There have been some comical moments in their first month at UVa. One day they boarded a University bus they expected to take them to the McCue Center. They ended up on the Corner instead, near the hospital.
“The first few days — and I can speak for Grant, too — we both had to feel our way around,” Stalker said, smiling.
This marks the seventh consecutive year UVa’s football program has added at least one midyear recruit in January, starting with defensive lineman Will Hill in 2009. Then came quarterback Michael Strauss in 2010, quarterback David Watford and linebacker Daquan Romero in 2011, quarterback Greyson Lambert in 2012, running back LaChaston Smith in 2013, and defensive tackle Andrew Brown and offensive lineman Jake Fieler last year.
“They come in with their eyes wide open. It’s a new experience,” head coach Mike London said.
Polk and Stalker came “in very humble, very eager to learn,” London said. “They’re doing a good job assimilating in the college culture right now. They’re mature young men, and they’ve come in with a purpose. They’re not high-maintenance, and they’re excited about fitting in with the team. Our players have embraced them.”
Stalker, an all-state selection at Lakota West High, also seriously considered Cincinnati and Louisville. But he wanted to play in a Power 5 conference, which eliminated Cincinnati, and UVa’s academics were too good to pass up, he said.
Another selling point was his relationship with Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, an Ohio native who has been friends for “25 years or so” with Lakota West head coach Larry Cox, Stalker said.
“It’s unbelievable how much he knows and how he breaks it down,” Stalker said of Tenuta, who has to replace six starters from 2014, including middle linebacker Henry Coley.
Polk, an all-state performer for Charlotte High, expected to have Scott Wachenheim as his position coach at UVa. But Wachenheim left last month to become head coach at Virginia Military Institute.
London hired Dave Borbely this month for a second stint as UVa’s offensive line coach. Borbely also has coached the O-line at such schools as Stanford, Notre Dame, Colorado and Louisville.
“He definitely knows what he’s talking about,” Polk said.
Ryan Tedford, UVa’s head strength coach for football, will have little time this summer to work with the first-year class before training camp opens in August. With Stalker and Polk already here, they “can do everything that the older guys can do, so it just gives you a little bit more time to evaluate them,” Tedford said.
Neither player is new to weightlifting, but “obviously the tempo and the intensity of the work here is a little bit different than what they’re used to,” Tedford said.
“You could tell that immediately in their first workout. The stress level that they’re experiencing is completely different than the stress level of everybody else, because they don’t know what to expect. They’re going into everything blind. They’re just kind of going [along], so we’ve dedicated one staff member to stick with them and try to help them.”
Polk said: “They like to push you to your limit.”
During the winter conditioning program, Tedford said, players lift three days a week, work “on speed and change of direction one day, and do a little bit of speed and more change of direction on the other day.”
After four years in a college program, Thorpe “at least knew kind of what to expect as far as tempo and attention to detail and everything else,” Tedford said. “He did well [the first week].”
That doesn’t mean it was easy for Thorpe, a graduate of Jordan High School in Durham, N.C.
“I haven’t been this sore since my freshman year at Carolina,” Thorpe said with a smile. “[The first workout] touched every muscle group, it seems, in one period, and you feel it in the morning. It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience, and definitely something I’m going to have to get used to.”
Thorpe, who’s sharing an apartment with teammates Mike Moore and Kyle Dockins and former UVa football player Chris Brathwaite, is enrolled in a master’s program in kinesiology in the Curry School of Education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sport science from UNC.
“My family’s always been big on academics,” Thorpe said.
He could have returned to Carolina for a fifth year, but Thorpe and his parents decided another school would be a better fit for him.
UVa was a natural choice. As a schoolboy, Thorpe had visited Virginia and liked what he saw. But he was more familiar with the Tar Heels, then coached by Butch Davis, and Thorpe committed to them in March 2010.
“Basically, if it wasn’t North Carolina,” London recalled, “it would have been us.” And so when he decided to leave UNC, Thorpe said, it “wasn’t a hard decision.”
Thorope knew several Virginia players before enrolling, including defensive backs Tim Harris, Demetrious Nicholson and Mason Thomas. Moreover, Thorpe had played AAU basketball with Anthony Gill, now a standout on the UVa hoops team.
By the time the Heels arrived in Charlottesville for their Oct. 25 football game with the Wahoos, Thorpe said, he knew he would not be returning to Chapel Hill in 2015. As the game “was wrapping up,” Thorpe said, he spotted Gill in the stands. “I said, `Don’t be surprised if you see me here next year.’ ”
Memories of the UNC game still pain the Cavaliers. Virginia blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost 28-27. Thorpe, as chance would have it, scored the game-winning touchdown on a 16-yard reception with 4:05 left.
Thorpe, who did not redshirt at Carolina, suffered a broken foot last August, an injury that sidelined him for three games in the fall. He still finished the season with 16 catches for 237 yards and three TDs. During a career in which he broke his left foot three times — he missed the entire 2012 season — Thorpe totaled 42 receptions for 574 yards and five touchdowns.
“I’ve still yet to flourish the way I want to as a receiver,” Thorpe said, “but I know it’s there. I’ve shown flashes. I just haven’t had the full opportunity to showcase what I can do, for whatever reason.”
As a college player, he’s made his biggest impact on special teams. Thorpe, who can also return punts, ran back 59 kickoffs for 1,448 yards, an average of 24.5 yards, and one touchdown.
“That’s one of the things I enjoy most, being able to change the game in one play,” Thorpe said.
From a UVa team that finished 5-7 in 2014, among the players London must replace is Darius Jennings. In a stellar senior season, Jennings caught 27 passes for 521 yards and two TDs, rushed 24 times for 115 yards and another TD, and averaged an ACC-best 27.1 yards per kickoff return.
With 1,839 career yards on kickoff returns, Jennings ranks first all-time at Virginia, and Thorpe said he hopes “to keep that momentum going.”
Thorpe is a player “that can significantly help our return game,” London said.
His workout gear no longer features baby blue. Thorpe has been a Cavalier for less than a month, though, and he occasionally does a double take when he looks in the mirror and sees himself in blue and orange.
“It’s crazy how things work out,” Thorpe said.