CHAPEL HILL — A month ago, North Carolina sophomore A.J. Blue wasn't completely certain he'd be making the switch from quarterback to tailback.
Now, he's running with the first team.
With redshirt freshman Gio Bernard limited to non-contact drills this week after suffering a non-displaced fracture to his left hand Saturday, and redshirt senior Ryan Houston still wearing a precautionary don't-hit-me orange practice jersey after spring shoulder surgery, Blue is getting extra reps with the starters in practice as he continues to make his transition.
He'll likely move back to a reserve role come the Tar Heels' Sept. 3 season opener against James Madison, but after sitting out last season because of torn ligaments in his left knee in 2009, it's a step in the right direction.
"A.J. looks great," Houston said. "It's crazy, because you've got a guy coming in who can throw the ball 70, 80 yards, and then to switch him up and throw him in at running back ... he's got the ability to play, really, any position - he can catch the ball, (he's) great out of the backfield, can make good moves, he's got great vision. ... He really gives us a lot of options."
Blue, a 6-foot-2 athlete from Dallas, N.C., has always been versatile. He lined up behind center as part of North Carolina's "Wildcat" formation during six games as a true freshman in 2009, and played some at tailback against Georgia Southern that season before his injury.
After a year and a half of rehabilitating and then strengthening his knee, he approached former coach Butch Davis during the summer about switching back to tailback.
"I love playing football, obviously, and I want to be a big contributor, and I want to play any way possible," Blue said.
He started working out with former tailback Johnny White. He studied film and plays with Houston and Bernard.
In July, he also pled guilty to a February charge of driving while impaired in Burlington and was sentenced to 12 months of unsupervised probation. Charges of resisting a public officer and having an open container were dismissed, according to court records. Disciplinary action by the team was handled internally by Davis, a team spokesman said.
Blue didn't officially make the position switch until the first day of practice - after Davis was fired, and reserve tailback Hunter Furr opted to transfer to East Carolina.
Considering North Carolina's history of tailback injuries (Bernard also missed last season with an ACL tear, and Houston redshirted after sitting out the first five games as part of the NCAA investigation), the Tar Heels needed another tailback available, and Blue's athleticism and drive fit the bill.
"We've used four running backs the last two years," interim head coach Everett Withers said last week. "There's been the need for four, so we're trying to get as many guys who can run, and not force them to be anything they're not."
Blue said his biggest transition in making the switch has been learning pass protection, keeping his pad level low and being physical. During Saturday's closed scrimmage, he said he had one fumble, but "I felt like I made good cuts and good reads. ... And it just felt good to get hit, again."
He said he hasn't practiced in any "Wildcat" packages - yet. And although he's played quarterback most of his life, Blue doesn't think he'll miss throwing the ball, whether he's in with the starters or coming off the bench.
"Not if I'm catching it, not if I'm carrying it,'' Blue said. "If I get the rock, I'm all good."
Briefly: Bernard's left hand is in a cast, but Withers said if there were a game tomorrow, the redshirt freshman would be able to play. Houston is also expected to be ready for the season opener.
Former All-ACC selection David Thornton, who recently retired from the NFL's Tennessee Titans, has officially returned to the North Carolina football team as a member of the player development staff.
Staff researcher Peggy Neal contributed.
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