ATHENS – T.J. Stripling laughs when he thinks about how much, or little, he weighed when he first came to the University of Georgia.
The junior outside linebacker weighed 202 pounds in June of 2010, with his long, slender frame making him appear even lighter than that.
“It was bad because I had just run track,” he said. “It was bad.”
Two years later Stripling now weighs 230 pounds, a figure he answers with pride when asked about because he thought he’d never gain that much.
“I didn’t. Not this quick,” he said.
He's also prideful when he talks about his health. He says he finally feels 100 percent comfortable after rupturing his patella tendon in October of 2010. He played last season at about 80 percent, he figures, because he rushed back to play well ahead of the recovery time table he was originally given.
“The rehab was supposed to be a year and a half,” Stripling said. “I think I came back in a year, maybe even before that. I was ready to play not knowing things were going to turn out the way they did with me not being 100 percent. I was just ready to get back on the field.”
Stripling’s injury occurred on a kickoff when he tried to plant and change directions. He tore the entire tendon right across the middle.
“It was the worst injury ever,” he said.
Playing mostly special teams, Stripling appeared in nine games in 2011, recording two tackles while seeing only mop-up duty on defense.
“I could run, I could do a lot of things, but it just didn’t feel like I used to,” he said. “As far as my instincts, I still favored that knee a lot.”
With pain a constant and playing time lacking, Stripling turned to his best friend on the team for direction.
It just so happened that friend was also the best defensive player on the team – linebacker Jarvis Jones.
“That’s my brother there,” Stripling says of Jones.
A junior from Columbus, Ga., Jones had been through similar circumstances after dealing with a neck injury. He had to sit out a year after transferring from Southern Cal to Georgia and knew what it was like to go through the recovery from a major injury.
“He basically told me just to grind it out,” Stripling said. “There’s going to be those days where you might say, ‘is this really what I should be doing? Can I really play football?’ I’ve had those days where I just wanted to give it up because I felt like I wasn’t going to be 100 percent, but he sat me down and told me not to think about it, to work hard and I’d be back. That’s what I did.”
Jones paid attention to Stripling at practice. He didn’t allow him to feel like he’d been forgotten or passed over. He took him into the film room. Stripling’s injury may have stunted him physically, but Jones made sure his friend was still growing mentally.
“He’s the biggest guy to just keep you motivated,” Stripling said. “The way he works, his whole attitude and persona and everything is just crazy. That’s the kind of guy you just love to be around.”
All the time around Jones paid off. Stripling gained 15 pounds this offseason. He finished rehabbing his knee and entered spring practice with a new sense of being – he felt like he had a clean slate.
“He’s focused, he’s happy about it and coach (Todd) Grantham and our players and defensive staff are happy about having him back,” Jones said. “(This defense is) definitely something he wants to be a part of, so (he’s) definitely focused and learning the material.”
Looking back on it, Stripling holds some regret for not taking a redshirt last season. But he tries not to get hung up on that decision. It was a part of the process, he said, and he’s concentrating on the future.
“I know a lot of attention is on Jarvis, of course, him and Cornelius (Washington) but those guys deserve it,” he said. “They worked hard, did their thing. I’m just trying to do the same thing that they did to get to that point.”
Washington and fellow outside linebacker Ray Drew have spent time this spring at defensive end, granting more reps for Stripling and others at the outside linebacker spot opposite Jones. Stripling is making the most of his opportunity.
“I mean every time you get a chance to get in between those lines he’ll make it count,” Jones said.