CHAPEL HILL — A college football practice field can seem like a difficult place to be alone, what with the more than 100 players – walk-ons included – and all the coaches, trainers and support staff. But Erik Highsmith, a North Carolina senior receiver, admitted Tuesday he felt a bit lonely during the Tar Heels’ fourth preseason practice.
“We were down two guys, two starters today,” Highsmith said. “So it felt kind of (like) just me out there a little bit.”
Of the Tar Heels’ top five receivers entering training camp, Highsmith is the only one yet to miss a practice, and he was the only one working Tuesday. UNC dismissed Todd Harrelson from the team in July, and sophomores Sean Tapley and Reggie Wilkins didn’t practice Tuesday.
The player surrounded by the greatest concern, though, is sophomore T.J. Thorpe, who led the ACC a season ago in kickoff returns. He suffered a broken bone in his left foot Sunday and is out indefinitely.
Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ first-year head coach, shared little Tuesday about Thorpe’s status.
“I don’t know what to tell you, because I don’t talk about injuries,” Fedora said. “Here’s what I’ll tell y’all about injuries, guys. I will tell you about anybody that we lose for the season. And that’s it. So we haven’t lost him for the season, so I don’t really have anything to say for him.”
Thorpe watched teammates practice Tuesday with his left foot in a black protective boot. He ambled around on a pair of crutches, and after practice he rode off the field on the back of a cart.
While it’s unclear how much time Thorpe might miss, this much has become quite clear: Depth at receiver is becoming more and more of a concern for Fedora, who already had expressed doubts about numbers at the position.
“I’m concerned at depth at every position,” Fedora said. “I mean every position. We’re not deep enough at a single position, really. And so (depth at receiver) is a concern, you know, but right now it hasn’t affected how we practiced so hopefully we won’t get into a situation where we have to alter the way we practice.”
Tapley and Wilkins, both of whom will be expected to help fill Thorpe’s void in the return game, could return to practice as soon as Wednesday, Fedora said. UNC also hopes that Quinshad Davis, a receiver who was among the team’s most acclaimed incoming recruits, might soon be medically cleared to begin practicing.
With numbers thin, the Heels are relying on freshman receivers Kedrick Davis and Kendrick Singleton to emerge.
“I’m getting a little bit more concerned – a little bit,” Highsmith said. “It’s kind of like a guy down every day almost. But we’re going to be all right, I think.”
Roy Smith, a junior walk-on who played in high school at Miami (Fla.) Northwestern, has provided an early boost at receiver and in the return game. A sprinter on the UNC track team, Smith drew praise from Fedora Tuesday for what he has shown as a punt returner.
Thanks in part to injuries and attrition, Smith has risen second on the depth chart, behind Highsmith, at UNC’s “X” receiver position.
“I’m not surprised at all, with the skills I have,” Smith said. “Not to knock anyone else, but I know the capability that I have. So I came in to work hard and get on the field.”
Just days into UNC’s preseason training camp, keeping receivers there has been the challenge.