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April 12, 2011After an entire year of having to go slowly and practice on a limited basis, North Carolina's A.J. Blue was able to finally play back at full strength this spring for the Tar Heels.
"I've been going 100 percent with no limitations at all. It's going great," said Blue.
"Oh man, it's tremendous. You go from being able to run and walk and doing all this other kind of stuff to not being able to do it at all. Just to be back and doing everything 100 percent is great."
Coming off a severe knee injury that he suffered in UNC's win over Georgia Southern back in October 2009, Blue wound up redshirting the 2010 season.
The time off from football not only made him appreciate what he missed not being on the field, but it also gave him a chance to get more in tune with the mental side of the game.
"It makes me appreciate it a lot, because the things you don't get to do, you don't realize it and you don't value it until you can't do them. Like I say, I appreciate it a lot," he said.
"I had the whole year last year just to be able to watch, and it was all mental reps. I got to learn the offense, the concepts. This year I'm actually getting to do it."
"I'm studying the playbook more and watching myself on film to fix my mistakes. So it's really been a blessing in disguise just to be back out here this spring," Blue added.
There's been a great deal of discussion the past couple of years as to exactly what position is best for Blue to play.
While Blue has gotten playing time at both running back and quarterback during his time in Chapel Hill, right now he's clearly a quarterback and he's definitely in the mix to be Bryn Renner's top backup heading into the 2011 season.
"Yeah, I think clearly for right now (Blue is a quarterback). Obviously we're trying to decide who the starter is going to be, but we really, truly need to find out who is going to be the backup quarterback. And we've got the three kids," said UNC head coach Butch Davis.
"My heart and soul is at quarterback, but if another position calls, that's where A.J. Blue is going to be. Right now I don't know," said Blue.
Blue's development, and that of the other UNC quarterbacks, is critical because of the fact that at any given time they may have to go into the ball game.
"I think we all felt pretty confident and felt fairly comfortable last year that if God forbid something would have happened to T.J. Yates for a half or a game, Bryn Renner could come in and we kind of thought, 'Okay, we can win the game,'" said Davis.
"We've got to get that same comfort level with a backup quarterback, whether it's for a half or half of a season. You never know. You want to make sure that you've got guys that can come in and play."
For Blue, the biggest areas of improvement at quarterback have been in his throwing motion and technique.
After years of being a run-first quarterback in high school, Blue is now learning the finer points of being a legit quarterback in a pro-style offense.
"I was exclusively a runner in high school---I was a running quarterback---so now it's just working on my mechanics," he said. "My mechanics and my footwork, I think it's gotten really great."
One particular area of throwing that Blue has worked especially hard on is his motion---tightening his release up to make it harder for opposing defenders to read him and make plays on the ball.
"With my circle, my range of motion with my throwing, I think I've made tremendous strides but I know I've got a lot farther to go," he said. "Basically it's just the tight circle. The tighter your circle is, the quicker the ball gets out."
"And as I watch on film, as I throw 'slants' and I throw 'stick' routes to the tight end, I watch my circle. When it's big I give the defenders time to react on it," he added.
"And when it's small, I give the defenders no time to react. It's like I get them the ball and I give the tight ends time to make a move or the receivers time to make a move."
"Timing has been my biggest thing on throwing, and my motion, I think it's gotten a lot better but it definitely has a lot more to go," Blue continued.
Another element of quarterbacking that Blue has had to learn is to keep the ball higher up when he lets it out of his hand.
"Having it up here (over my body) has taken me out of my comfort zone, but it's just something I've got to get used to," said Blue.
"It's just been natural for so many years because like I say, I've been an exclusive runner first, and just having the ball down low has been natural."
"Just the ball being up and not dropping the ball---sort of like (Tim) Tebow and (Michael) Vick---how you just drop the ball. More like a Peyton Manning type style," Blue added.
Blue admits that he practiced a little heavy this spring, but he plans to go hard in the weight room and on the track this offseason and drop about 10 pounds before training camp.
"Right now I feel like physically I'm not where I want to be exactly. I'm at 226 (pounds) right now, but I'll be at 215 before training camp," he said.
"Right around 215, 210, I feel like I can play anywhere on the field."
It's been an interesting journey for Blue over his time in Chapel Hill, but now that he's back on the field he's staying hungry and motivated to improve daily without taking anything for granted.
"Me personally, I've been doing all right. I can do a lot better," he said. "It could be better, but it's definitely going how I expected it."
"I'm just making my way up and just progressing to be the quarterback that I want to be day by day, and working hard day in and day out."