NC State junior T.J. Graham is one of the most electrifying kick and punt returners in the ACC, but is striving to become an impact wide receiver.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Graham wants to carve out a niche on offense and become a consistent performer. He caught 12 passes for 129 yards and his first touchdown (against Gardner-Webb) in seven games last year. Graham started three games when the Wolfpack went with three wide receivers.
"This is my year to make my name and make a statement for myself," Graham said. "I want to actually contribute to the offense this year. I've been a big impact [player] on special teams, but I've just been a minor impact [player] on offense."
Graham felt he was turning the corner at wide receiver before he suffered a season-ending stress fracture in his leg against Boston College. He caught five passes for 52 yards and a score against Gardner-Webb, and then followed with three catches for 63 in the upset victory over Pittsburgh. He then had three catches for 10 yards against Wake Forest and Duke, indicating the lack of consistency he is aiming for.
"I have to pick up where I left off and build on that," said Graham, who has 28 career catches in 20 games. "I want to make a big impact on offense."
Graham missed the final five games, and the majority of the loss against the Eagles.
"That was the worst injury I've had in a while," Graham said. "It was pretty frustrating that I couldn't contribute. It gave the opportunity for other people to step up and play also. It helped make us all better. Our receiving core right now is probably one of the best in the nation because we've all had experience."
Graham showed off his arm in the Kay Yow Spring Game on April 17 with a 49-yard touchdown pass to redshirt junior Jay Smith, and also caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Daniel Imhoff to give the Red team a 31-21 lead with 1:09 left in the game. He was glad to show his return to health, and also had four touchdown receptions in the various spring scrimmages.
"During my injury, I had the time to look at different aspects of the game," Graham said. "Instead of me sitting there and being tired, and watching people run, I was able to be fresh and observe. I could sit in meetings and listen to everything. During the spring, I had ample time to get my upper body strength straight. The [football] classroom was where I needed to improve in."
Graham watched NFL teams that run the Wolfpack offense and tried to zero in on certain wide receivers and how they approach the game.
"I'm a big Terrell Owens fan, but not his off the field stuff, but the way he plays and how strong he is," Graham said. "I look at Ted Ginn Jr. and DeSean Jackson, that type of player. Those guys are just a few years older than me, but I look up to them a lot."
Graham has also stepped up as a leader this offseason.
"It feels like I just got here, but a lot of my friends and classmates have been redshirted," Graham said. "To be part of the junior class and see the redshirt sophomores are a little different. I've always been a leader on all my teams, and I try to lead by example. I can't drop balls and lead at the same time.
"I just had to wait for my time and be quiet and listen to the people ahead of me. I don't feel like I'm one of the older guys, so I feel younger compared to the guys ahead of me. So, I still sit back and listen and don't say much."
Graham returned 23 kickoffs last year for 574 yards and a touchdown against Duke, and he also had 15 punt returns for 156 yards, and almost scored against Murray State on a 57-yard jaunt to the one-yard line.
Graham ranks second among active ACC players in career kickoff return yards (1,602), which also ranks fourth in NC State history. He was an honorable mention All-ACC kick returner in 2008, and ranked sixth in the league in all-purpose yards per game (108.1). He set a Wolfpack record with 1,028 kickoff return yards, which featured a 100-yard touchdown against Boston College, which is another school mark.
Graham knows opponents will give him some healthy respect in the return game.
"It can be frustrating, very frustrating being that is one of my strengths and how I can contribute to the team," Graham said. "If I can't contribute, then I have to find other ways to do it. It's part of the game plan and I'll have to adjust and make plays elsewhere."
Graham joked that he watched that Murray State punt return down to the one-yard more than a few times.
"I watched it in slow motion and any other possible way you can watch it," Graham said. "I have even it at my house on a single disk. It just ate at me. As well as the return was, not scoring was worst than the benefit of the return. I think my teammates would rather me fair catch it than not score in that situation."
Graham sported world-class speed coming out of Raleigh Wakefield High as a two-star prospect in 2008. He finished third nationally in the 100-meter dash at the Nike Nationals in 2007, and was the North Carolina 4-A state champion in the 100 (10.44) and 200 (20.82) his senior year in 2008.
Redshirt sophomore cornerback C.J. Wilson and sophomore running back James Washington ran the fastest 40-yard dash times during the spring. Graham has already picked off one of them this fall.
"[James and I], we settled that one," Graham said. "I won't even say anything, and I'll just leave it at that. C.J., he's pretty fast. That needs to be resettled. Coming off my injury, he got me, so I'll give him that. I won't use it as a crutch, but I'll give it to him."