T.J. Graham has heard the critics. He knows most people viewed him as a track guy playing football. Some thought he was a special teams standout looking to maybe help at wide receiver. Now he's trying to dominate in every facet of the game, and he did that Saturday night.
The junior stole the show in NC State's 48-7 win, catching a career-high six passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns. He entered the game with just one career touchdown catch.
"I still feel like I have a lot to improve on but I feel comfortable," said Graham. "It's my third year, and I should be showing progress. It's what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm taking steps, but I know I have to produce.
"I've been taking in all the coaching I've received the past two years and tried to translate that into what they've wanted me to become. I've got two great seniors playing in front of me, and I'm following what they can do so hopefully I can step into their position next year."
NC State already has one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Russell Wilson, the ACC's top returning tight end in George Bryan, and a pair of senior receivers in Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams who form arguably the top 1-2 punch at wideout in the league.
In Graham the NC State coaching staff has a unique weapon. At 6-foot and 180 pounds with outstanding speed, he creates matchup problems in the slot, can stretch the field vertically, and is starting to show he can make people miss in open space. The other wideouts in the Wolfpack's rotation all check in at 6-foot-3 or taller, and if Graham can continue to develop the he will add another dimension to an already potent offensive attack.
"I don't feel like I've played to my full potential yet," he said. "I've had success in the past, but there is still more to be had. I still think I can take off.
"Offensively, I think we're confident, but not cocky. Everyday we are humbled by coach Bible no matter how many great plays we make, and I think that's great for us because it keeps us hungry and humble. We know we have the weapons to produce and make plays, but we've got to do it. We all know we have to make plays because it's our job."
“I’ve been saying he’s good all along," said NC State head coach Tom O'Brien. "If you go 100 percent in practice, then that’s going to carry over to games. It’s certainly nice to see. He gives us one more threat in the perimeter."
The Wolfpack already knew what Graham could do in the return game. One of the ACC's top returners, Graham entered the year ranked second among active ACC players in career kickoff return yards with 1,602, which is the fourth-highest total in school history.
He only had one opportunity to return a kick against Western Carolina, and he nearly broke that one for a score after breaking free down the sidelines for a 50-yard gain. What is going through Graham's mind when he is back there waiting on a kick?
"When I step out there the first thing I do is calm myself down," he stated. "I analyze the opponent. We do our scouting report throughout the course of the week so I pick out the key weaknesses on the line... the people coming down. I envision it all happening first, and then at that time the ball is in the air, and it's time to go."
Fans may not know it, but there is a lot of preparation and film breakdown needed to break long runs in the return game.
"You can't just go out there and run," said Graham. Obviously you run when you hit the open field, but getting there takes you doing your homework. You have to understand the opponents, gauge their size and speed, watch how they react to moves on film, observe their tendencies. All of that is involved, and once you see all that you exploit it on the field."
Graham played in just seven games last fall before he suffered a stress fracture early in his leg early in the loss at Boston College. Despite missing five whole games, his 574 kickoff return yards ranked as the eighth-best mark in school history. NC State definitely missed Graham late in 2009 as he was on his way to a breakout season as a returner, something the Wolfpack definitely could have needed to help with field position.
"Seeing the times that we struggled, there were times I could help," Graham said. "It was tough. I watched them and felt bad I couldn't go out and help but there was nothing I could do. I had to get back healthy so I could get back on the field."
You can sense the optimism Graham has for the 2010 season, not just for himself but also for the Wolfpack.
"This year's team has a different feel to it," he said. "To me it feels like our team from the second half of the season back in 2008... when we just took off. We have that buzz around. Like I said, we have confidence but we're not taking it overboard. We play fast, we play hard, and we play physical everyday."