NC State senior wide receiver T.J. Graham is a local product of Raleigh (N.C.) Wakefield High and grew up as a Wolfpack fan, so he has seen his fair share of NC State-UNC contests.
He's also been a part of two of those heated games before, as a freshman in 2008 and he made one of the biggest plays last season when he scored on an 87-yard punt return, which gave the Pack their first lead of a contest they would eventually win 29-25.
However, he wasn't pleased with his performance outside of that punt return in last year's showdown, so he's working hard to ensure that he makes an impact on offense this Saturday, when the Pack will host the Tar Heels at 12:30 p.m.
"That one return is something that fans and media remember," the 6-foot, 180-pound speedster said. "I remember how many drops I had that game, how many missed assignments I had - I didn't have a very good offensive game that game. This year, I'm trying to have a better offensive year. The kick returns come, the punt returns come, but that's not what I wanted; I'd rather score on offense. When it happened, of course I was excited, but I just felt I was doing what I was supposed to do."
The fourth-year pass catcher has done an excellent job of becoming more than just a special teams demon in his final campaign. With the graduation of seniors Owen Spencer, Jarvis Williams and Darrell Davis after the 2010 season, Graham has taken control of the wide receiving corps and become quarterback Mike Glennon's go-to target.
Graham started the year with a bang and eclipsed 100 yards receiving in three of the first four games; becoming the first Pack player to surpass the century mark through the air in three-straight games since Jerricho Cotchery did so in 2003. On the year, he has totaled a career-best 28 receptions for 531 yards and four scores. He leads the team in all receiving categories, ranks eighth in the ACC for receiving yards per game (66.4) and stands sixth nationally with an average of 186.8 all-purpose yards per game, which is second in the league. He has also totaled 741 yards on 32 kick returns and 149 yards and a score on nine punt returns; he is just 76 yards shy of setting the ACC's all-time kick return record.
Although Graham has never lost to the hated Tar Heels as a member of the Pack, it's a little surprising which contest he lists as his most memorable in the series between the rivals who are separated by less than 30 miles.
"Probably the year I didn't play was the most memorable," he recalled. "My sophomore year, I got hurt and I got to watch the game from a different angle. That's probably my favorite NC State-UNC game because I got to watch from a different view and I actually understood what was going on, it wasn't like when I was younger and in high school. That was probably my favorite, it was pretty tough to sit out but it was fun that we won."
Graham is hoping to make some new memories in his final chance against North Carolina. He has caught just one pass for five yards against the Tar Heels, although he has added 239 yards and a touchdown in returns. He's been trying to stress the importance of this game to some of his younger teammates but he added that if they haven't experienced an atmosphere like this rivalry before, "they will find out because it will hit them in the face pretty quickly."
The senior has also stressed that his teammates move on from last weekend's shutout loss in Tallahassee. He said the coaches have not changed their game plan or philosophy; the players just need to go out and execute.
"I've forgotten about that game already," he said of the 34-0 loss to Florida State. "It was a tough loss, that's all. The more I reflect on it, that was a pretty good team we lost to, but we're better than what we showed on the field Saturday. We have to forget about it - it's just like when you drop a ball, miss a tackle, miss a block; you've got to let it go and make the next play and our next play is our next game."
If the Pack wants to qualify for its third bowl game in coach Tom O'Brien's tenure, the North Carolina game is a must-win. With four games left and three wins needed to ensure postseason play, Graham and his teammates are focused completely on Saturday; but the senior won't be expecting any more out of his teammates than he demands from himself. Graham expects to have a big day on offense and special teams on Saturday.
"Of course, as a senior and a leader on the team, I have to have a big game," he said. "I can't let my teammates down. Personally, I hold myself accountable in that regard.
"A win would mean a lot, we've been through a lot this season. It has not been as great as we expected but anytime you can beat your rival, it helps heal the wounds. A win is a win, we need to keep winning for the next couple of games and it just happens that our rivalry game is next."