Carolina Panthers

UNC running back A.J. Blue’s route to the NFL hasn’t been the most direct one

Nearly five months ago, A.J. Blue hit the lowest point of his career.

Blue, a former North Gaston standout, was the starting running back at North Carolina in a Nov. 9 game against Virginia. After his third carry, Blue could barely move after being tackled.

A back injury left Blue in tears while down on the field, but he composed himself and reached the sideline, where he tried not to show just how hurt he was.

It was Blue’s lowest point because after all he had overcome – the death of his older brother, being ruled academically ineligible coming out of high school, destroying his left knee in his freshman year, switching from quarterback to running back – he finally had his NFL goals in his sight.

And he had to start over.

Blue, who scored 10 touchdowns as a junior, didn’t expect his senior year to be like that.

“My mentality was to go in and be the wrecking ball I know I can be,” said Blue on Tuesday from North Carolina’s pro day. “NFL dreams were high. But I know that everybody doesn’t make it. So that doesn’t kill me. I still have my degree.”

Blue estimates he played with the back injury for four or five games before the Virginia game. Tuesday, in front of 51 pro scouts, he was healthy and performing for a crowd for the first time since the start of the 2013 season.

Blue’s circuitous route from electrifying North Gaston quarterback to a likely NFL free agent two months from now made him a better leader, his teammates say.

He says the journey made him a better man.

‘It’s been an absolute honor to be his teammate,” quarterback Bryn Renner said. “You can’t ask for a better guy than A.J. Blue. To go what he’s gone through, if you ever hear his life story, you don’t wish that upon anybody.

“But to have the resolve and the response that he’s had for his career, it’s unbelievable and it motivated our whole team.”

A bleak stretch

Blue was a star junior quarterback at North Gaston when his older brother and mentor, Demarreo Beard, was gunned down on his porch in 2006, a day before Blue led the Wildcats to a playoff victory against Hunter Huss.

A year later, after Blue had set Gaston County records for points scored (824) and total offense (9,700 yards), he signed with North Carolina, where he would be the first in his family to attend college.

But Blue, who admits he cared little about academics in high school, was ruled ineligible to join the Tar Heels in 2008, and instead spent the year at Hargrave Military Academy to boost his grades.

After arriving in Chapel Hill in 2009, Blue was a backup quarterback for the first six games of his freshman season, and in his first game at tailback – against Georgia Southern – he tore the ACL, MCL and PCL in his left knee. He missed the rest of the season and the entire 2010 season following what Renner called the worst knee injury he had ever seen.

After coach Butch Davis was fired before the 2011 season, interim coach Everett Withers used Blue solely as a running back, and Blue rushed 33 times for 138 yards and one touchdown.

“That’s probably been the toughest (transition) of anybody on the team,” current North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said of Blue’s switch to running back. “But his attitude is what enables him to do all that. The guy’s got an unbelievable attitude. A tremendous leader. Very well respected by all his teammates. He’s gone through a lot of hardship in his four or five years here.”

Another injury setback

Blue’s breakout year came in Fedora’s first season, in 2012. Blue played in all 12 games and rushed for nine touchdowns, gaining 5.3 yards per carry. He also had nine catches for 80 yards and a touchdown, all while playing behind star running back Giovani Bernard, who was drafted by the Bengals in the second round of last year’s draft.

“Gio takes care of his body, doesn’t take reps off, doesn’t complain about anything and he runs with attitude,” Blue said. “I tried to take all those characteristics and put them within myself and said, ‘if I can have 10 touchdowns behind Gio, shoot, I can have 15 without him.’ ”

It didn’t work out that way. Before the injury against Virginia, Blue had rushed 73 times for 292 yards and one touchdown, well off the pace from his previous season. The back injury against Virginia was so crippling Renner was surprised Blue could even walk.

Blue would carry the ball just once more – against Duke – as a Tar Heel.

Tuesday, Blue ran a 4.72 40-yard dash, which would have been on the slow end of running backs invited to the NFL combine, and was 11 pounds over his listed 215-pound weight. Though he still has to learn to trust his hands, Blue ran crisp routes out of the backfield, and the only passes he struggled with were one-step inside slants, not commonly called for running backs.

All 32 NFL teams were represented. Missing was Blue’s son, Amareon, who had to be at school.

“I tell him every day, if you’re going to play ball you have to do well in the classroom. He’s only in the first grade, but I keep repeating that,” Blue said. “Every time I get a chance to talk to the kids in Gastonia, I tell them school first. God gave you the ability to play football, but how can you play it if you’re ineligible?”

Blue likely won’t be drafted, so his route to the pros is likely as an undrafted free agent at rookie camp.

Blue said he’ll give the NFL a couple of tries before falling back on his communications degree.

But Bernard, his former teammate and one of the NFL’s budding young running backs, thinks Blue has a chance.

“There are certain things that you can teach in the NFL, and you can’t teach leadership,” Bernard said. “You can’t tell a person how to be a leader, and Blue has that characteristic. And a lot of NFL teams like that.

“I’m sure he’ll get to a camp, and once he gets into a camp his skills will take over from there.”