Stripling tries to make most of injury-plagued career

semerson@macon.comNovember 21, 2013 

STEVEN COLQUITT/UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIAGeorgia linebacker T.J. Stripling has 17 career tackles entering the final home game of his career, one affected by a knee injury during his freshman year.

STEVEN COLQUITT/UNIVERSITY OF GE

Stripling’s career took a major turn following a knee injury as a freshman

ATHENS -- T.J. Stripling doesn’t sound mad at anybody. He also doesn’t sugarcoat it. His college football career didn’t turn out the way he, or anybody, expected.

But why be mad? There was no one to blame on that kickoff when the knee injury happened. And the one tactical error in his career, he blames that one on himself. Sometimes you can be too eager for your own good.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Stripling said. “But it’s something that comes with the game.”

Georgia will send out a big group of seniors Saturday at its home finale. There are very big names, led by star quarterback Aaron Murray, as well as four other offensive starters, and defensive end Garrison Smith, who four years ago was a four-star recruit, just like Stripling.

But Stripling is wrapping up his career quietly, with little hoopla to match his recruitment four years ago. He had offers from Alabama, Florida, Miami and basically every SEC and ACC program.

College coaches saw a 6-foot-6, 215-pound defensive player who combined for 35 sacks his junior and senior years at Southwest DeKalb. He was fast enough to run down ballcarriers from behind, a big reason he also had 195 tackles, 40 of them for lost yardage. He was timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

“Obviously he was somewhat of a project when you looked at his frame,” said Chad Simmons, the recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “But I think schools thought they could do that, get him in the weight room and build him up.”

But it didn’t happen. And much of the reason for that can be tied to a fateful kickoff at Colorado in 2010.

Stripling was just a freshman trying to earn playing time on defense. One way was special teams. He appeared in Georgia’s first four games, and in the fifth, at Colorado, he ran down the field to cover a kickoff. But he was hurt, and it altered his career.

It was a ruptured patella tendon in his knee. Suffice to say, his season was over. It was also bad timing. The knee injury came in the fifth game, thus removing the possibility of a redshirt. One game earlier, and he’d be a junior this year, rather than preparing to leave.

In retrospect, Stripling should have redshirted in 2011, as he was still far from full speed. He said the coaches offered a redshirt, but he wanted to play.

“I wasn’t as quick as I thought I was,” he said. “I wasn’t 100 percent. I probably wasn’t 50 percent. I probably could have redshirted that year. But I wanted to get back on the field. That probably set me back farther.”

It also affected his ability to put on weight. He’s now listed at 237 pounds, which is about 30 more than he was when he got to campus. But there’s a difference between weight and good weight.

“It made it really difficult,” Stripling said. “Having to lift with my upper body for the majority of my career here was the biggest factor. And then once I actually started doing lower body, it really wasn’t a lot of weight there. It was a lot of little stuff. So I could never really get that mass like that. But I’m going full tilt now.”

But it’s a bit too late. Stripling has never started a game, and he never really has come close. He enters Saturday’s game with 17 career tackles and one sack, which came last year against Florida Atlantic.

Last year, Stripling thought about transferring. But he couldn’t do it because he didn’t want to leave his close friends on the team: Jarvis Jones, Cornelius Washington, Bacarri Rambo, Ken Malcome and Kenarious Gates.

All but Gates, a senior offensive tackle, left prior to this season. But Stripling doesn’t look at this as a lonely, lost season, and he is upbeat about the team and the beleaguered defense. He gushed about the camaraderie on the team the past few years, and he predicted next year’s defense will help Georgia win a championship.

As for his own career, he does think about that kickoff at Colorado and what might have been. But he tries not to harp on it, and he looks at the bright side of his four years at Georgia.

“I’d say it’s a growing process,” Stripling said. “These four years here, I took a whole new outlook on things, and every bad situation is good. Every situation that’s how I look to it, the good in every situation. Maybe things could have went different if I never tore my knee. But maybe things wouldn’t (have), you never know. I just look at it as a chance to grow as a man. It helped me out with my faith a lot. It taught me how to work a lot harder. Because coming back from that injury, it took a lot of hard work. That’s the biggest thing it taught me. It just helped me grow.”

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