T.J. Brunson watched Richland Northeast’s spring football game last month from an unfamiliar position: the sideline.
The soon-to-be senior linebacker is recovering from hip surgery that kept him out of spring sports and, at least temporarily, changed the course of the college recruiting process.
“I just want to get back out there and help out,” Brunson said as the Cavaliers wrapped up spring practice. “I have an important role with this team, and I want to be there. Right now, I just want to get healthy and be able to produce for the team.”
Brunson was RNE’s leading tackler the past two seasons and has developed into the school’s top football prospect since Class of 2009 defensive lineman Chris Bonds, who signed with Alabama.
Brunson grew his profile despite left hip soreness that has bothered him for at least three years. He opted to have surgery March 21 for femoroacetabular impingement, a condition where there is too much friction in the hip joint.
He described the procedure matter-of-factly.
“They went in and shaved down the head of my femur and sutured my labrum and whatnot,” he said.
Instead of playing baseball for RNE or going through spring football practice, Brunson has spent many days after school at Moore Center for Orthopedics rehabilitating his hip. Lately that has meant leg presses, Total Body Resistance Exercises with bungee cords, planks, wall sits and leg bridges, among other workouts.
The surgery comes with a four- to six-month recovery time. Brunson believes he is ahead of schedule but doesn’t want to come back too soon.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be easy. Physically I’m tired, but mentally I feel like I’m coming back to where I want to be. I want to be better than last year.”
Brunson’s college offer list includes South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisville, N.C. State, East Carolina, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. He was a regular observer at the Gamecocks’ spring practices and came close in March – before the surgery – to making a verbal commitment to the hometown school.
USC coaches, Brunson said, want to see him healed up and back to normal on the field this fall before honoring a commitment.
“It’s obviously a big business these days, and you have to look at it from both perspectives,” RNE coach Jay Frye said. “I think the offer is still going to be there if he comes through this injury fine. I think T.J. is still high on South Carolina, and we’ll have to see what happens from here.”
Brunson said he wasn’t upset by not being able to make a pledge to the Gamecocks and still hears from USC linebackers coach Kirk Botkin almost daily.
Brunson, however, no longer has a favorite school and plans to see Auburn, North Carolina and Louisville in the coming weeks. He won’t be able to work out, but he’ll get to meet with coaches and tour the various campuses and facilities. He visited Georgia Southern this past weekend.
While he’s approaching the summer camp season with an open mind about recruiting and his options, Brunson said his top priority remains getting fully healthy for his senior season at RNE.
He led the team in sacks last year and had more than 100 tackles, in addition to handling the Cavaliers’ punting duty.
“He’s one of those guys you count on to make plays,” Frye said. “We want to get him back as soon as we can, but we don’t want him to overdo it and try to push himself too hard an re-injure himself. We’re going to be patient. He needs to be patient and continue to work hard and be a big part of the team and be with us as much as he possibly can.”
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says “femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) is a condition where the bones of the hip are abnormally shaped. Because they do not fit together perfectly, the hip bones rub against each other and cause damage to the joint.
“The bone overgrowth causes the hip bones to hit against each other, rather than to move smoothly. Over time, this can result in the tearing of the labrum and breakdown of articular cartilage (osteoarthritis).
“FAI occurs because the hip bones do not form normally during the childhood growing years. It is the deformity of a cam bone spur, pincer bone spur, or both, that leads to joint damage and pain. When the hip bones are shaped abnormally, there is little that can be done to prevent FAI.
“Because athletically active people may work the hip joint more vigorously, they may begin to experience pain earlier than those who are less active.”
MIDLANDS’ TOP CLASS OF 2016 PROSPECTS
According to 247Sports’ Composite ranking, which factors in all networks.
1. Stephen Davis Jr., ATH/DB, Dutch Fork (Auburn commitment)
2. Brandon Hill, LB, Heathwood Hall (Duke commitment)
3. Larry Collins, WR, Lower Richland (uncommitted)
4. James Valdez, DB, Orangeburg-Wilkinson (N.C. State commitment)
5. T.J. Brunson, LB, Richland Northeast (uncommitted)
6. Tyrone Kelly, DE, Camden (uncommitted)
7. Brandon Tillmon, LB, River Bluff (uncommitted)
8. Jayson Hopper, WR, Lexington (uncommitted)