August 15, 2011

Track transforms T.J. Graham on the gridiron

Some of the things senior T.J. Graham gained from his first season on the track last year are obvious: All-American honors, a return to a sport he loves and he might have even gained a little extra speed. However, there was another not-so-obvious advantage to the team's most experienced wide out making his first return to competition on the track in three years.

The speedy receiver said track helped make him become a leader, a role that he has always wanted on the gridiron. However, he was stuck behind two of the finest pass catchers in school history - Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams - and another senior, Darrell Davis in his first three seasons and has patiently waited for his turn on the football field.

"This past year in track, I got a chance to kind of break out of my shell and not be the young guy," the 6-foot, 180-pounder said. "This past year in track, I was able to be a leader for the whole team. I came in there for a few days and a lot of people didn't understand my background. After a while, they saw what I could bring, they heard me speak and knew I understood what I was talking about. Leading a team that I wasn't really a part of has helped me come out here and lead the guys around me at receiver."

Graham was a prep All-American on the track, finished third nationally in the 100 meter dash at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in 2007 and won a pair state crowns while at Raleigh (N.C.) Wakefield High. However, he has concentrated on football until receiving coach Tom O'Brien's blessing to show off his blazing speed on the track this winter. Graham joins a long list of Wolfpack football players who have contributed to the Pack's storied track program, including Manny Lawson, Ted Brown, Alvis Whitted and Danny Peebles.

Graham, a junior in track eligibility, made an immediate impact on the track, starting his career with a win in the 60-meter dash at the Virginia Tech Invitational on Jan. 14, blazing a time of 6.70 seconds, the second-best time in program history. He placed second in the conference for the 60 and 200 meters during the indoor season and recorded one of the country's top 10 times in each race.

At Nationals, Graham earned second-team All-America honors in the 60 and he would have been named a first-team All-American in the 200 after posting the sixth-best time in the preliminaries but officials ruled he took too many steps on the starting line and he was disqualified from the race. However, he was not aware of the ruling until he reported to the starting line for the finals.

"I warmed up and I was going to check in to get my lane assignment," he remembered. "I checked in for the race, showed my bib number and [an official] said, 'you're not on the list.' I was like, 'what do you mean I'm not on the list?' I was really upset and I told [track] coach [Rollie] Geiger, he didn't understand what I meant. He stormed over there but there was no time to protest, it was like 10 minutes before the race. The worst part was seeing your race go onto the track and you're sitting there, but there's nothing you can do. You can't protest, no matter how much you want to."

Graham was pleased with how he did in his track debut despite the disappointment of the disqualification.

"I always want to do better, I could've done better," he said. "It's pretty hard to be at top speed and be strong at the same time but I qualified for Indoor Nationals, I was one of the two athletes from NC State and I was fortunate enough to make All-American [in the 60].

"I was running my hardest and I ran out of my lane; [running on a] football field and track is different."

Despite his foray into track, though, football was still Graham's main focus in the spring. He even bypassed the finals at the Raleigh Relays after winning the preliminaries because it conflicted with practice. Although he pulled double duty, he also qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships and finished 17th nationally in the 100 meters.

He also put in plenty of time working with new quarterback Mike Glennon and the other receivers over the spring and summer. Graham, who is the most prolific kick returner in school history, is preparing for 2011 to be his best campaign yet.

Last year, Graham caught 25 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns - all career highs. He also tallied 565 yards on 29 kickoff returns (19.5 average) and 154 yards on 19 punt returns (8.1 average), including an 87-yard, go-ahead touchdown return against North Carolina. His 1,028 all-purpose yards paced the squad and the 3,292 all-purpose yards he has racked up during his career stands as the second-best active total in the league. He needs just 777 more yards via kick returns to set the ACC's all-time record, which is currently held by Torrey Smith (2,943 yards).

More important than any statistic, though, is the fact that he has stepped up and filled the leadership void among his position group.

"I always wanted to be the leader but I wasn't able to be the leader because guys were older, more experienced," he said. "I just kind of waited for my turn. I listened to those [older] guys and took all I can [from them]. Now, it's my turn. I've taken everything they taught me and transformed it into something of my own. It's pretty fun to me [to be a leader], I enjoy it."



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