By Lee Pace
It’s a productive exercise at the beginning of every season to parse the roster by recruiting class and tally the hits and misses, figure out if the four-stars ascended to the stratosphere or crashed in a heap, marvel at the “projects” who evolved over four years into good men and savvy football players. This business of recruiting is a gray science at best, one borne of countless hours of research, film study and travel to high schools across the land. In the end, it’s all about opinions and projections with occasional dollops of wishing and hoping.
Three and a half years ago, one theme of the Tar Heels’ signing class was the offensive line, which you can review here. Turns out former O-line coach Sam Pittman and the rest of the coaching staff was reasonably spot-on in its evaluation and sales job, as signees Travis Bond and Brennan Williams have evolved into productive players, augmented in the class ahead by Jonathan Cooper and the one behind by James Hurst.
That class signed in early February 2009 also included QB Bryn Renner, receivers Erik Highsmith and Jhay Boyd and one of the top linebackers to have played at Carolina in recent times, Kevin Reddick.
“The proof will come two years from now,” Butch Davis said on national signing day. “I could see eight to ten to 12 guys playing next year, but the real question will be how many will be a core part of the program in 2010? Then we’ll know how good a class it is. You’d like to see 75 to 80 percent playing and making huge contributions.”
Sadly, the talent harvest on defense in that class has been riddled with homesickness, injuries, malcontents, evaluations that went awry and assorted other issues. Of 12 players inked in 2009 projected to play on defense, only four remain on the team.
That’s the class that should be the backbone of the 2012 defense—the players who would be true seniors or red-shirted juniors. Add to that the fact there is only one fifth-year senior remaining from the 2008 class and, of the 2010 defensive signing class, five of 11 are no longer in the program and one is out all year with a knee injury.
The result is a defense in 2012 that has a good array of front-line players but is severely short on experienced scholarship players to fill in as backups and special teams players.
“It is what it is,” head coach Larry Fedora says. “We’re going to put 11 out there on offense, 11 on defense, 11 on special teams. And we’re going after them, I can promise you that.”
The Tar Heels found three legitimate stars out of the 2008 class, the first group signed with a full year of recruiting by Davis and his staff—Robert Quinn, Quinton Coples and Zach Brown. Michael McAdoo showed promise early until his career was derailed in the academic imbroglio that began in the summer of 2010. Melvin Williams contributed on special teams and as a reserve at safety for two years after transferring from a junior college. Dion Guy is now a fifth-year senior and projected to start at the Bandit spot in Carolina’s new 4-2-5 alignment. Ebele Okakpu played special teams but hardly ever scratched as a regular contributor on defense and was dismissed midway through his senior season. Herman Davidson played in every game on special teams in 2010, starting one game at linebacker, but left after his junior year for personal reasons. Finally, projected JUCO transfer Joseph Townsend couldn’t qualify for admission and wound up at Louisville.
Twelve members of the original 2009 signing class of 22 were projected to play defense. Reddick is the plum of the class, having started for two and half seasons and assuming the role as the leader of this year’s unit.
Gene Robinson has started 10 games over two years and is projected to start as the Ram defensive back this year. Terry Shankle is battling for time at cornerback after recovering from a torn ACL his freshman season and returning to play in the last four games in 2011. Curtis Campbell has been primarily a special teams contributor.
Those are the only ones still in Chapel Hill.
Donte Paige-Moss showed spurts of brilliance during his three seasons before leaving to attempt to play in the NFL--not the best of decisions given he didn’t start his final season in college and had a severe knee injury in the Shreveport bowl loss to Missouri that would limit his ability to try out for NFL teams in the spring. He was not drafted nor invited to an NFL camp as a free agent.
Seven players out of 12 either never arrived at Carolina or didn’t last past their sophomore years. Angelo Hadley’s scholarship offer was rescinded after he was arrested twice during the spring of his senior year in high school in St. Petersburg, Fla. Justin Dixon didn’t qualify and now is at East Carolina. Hawatha Bell was dismissed after his freshman season. Linebacker Shane Mularkey quit football after two years following shoulder surgery. DT Jared McAdoo was dismissed in the spring of 2011 and now is at N.C. A&T, and cornerbacks Mywan Jackson and Josh Hunter left the program before training camp in 2011.
That’s leaves 33 percent of the class remaining three years later as viable contributors.
For comparison purposes, the Tar Heels during their No. 4 and 11-1 season in 1997 played with 13 fifth-year seniors--more than 50 percent of the original 1993 signing class of 23.
The 2010 class listed 11 players projected to play defense, and so far only four have made notable contributions--defensive linemen Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson, cornerback Tre Boston and linebacker Darius Lipford. The former three are likely to start against Elon in two weeks; Lipford is out for the year with a knee injury.
Two more members of that class who are still in the program, Ethan Farmer and P.J. Clyburn, and are trying to find their roles.
Of the rest of that class, Carlos Gray did not qualify, spent a year at Oak Ridge Military Academy and now is at N.C. State. Quinton Alton transferred after one year. Brandon Willis came to Carolina twice and left twice. Ty Linton left camp his freshman year to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks. D.J. Bunn transferred to Winston-Salem State this summer.
It’s far too early to draw any conclusions about the 2011 class. JUCO transfer Fabby Desir played in a reserve role last fall but left the program in August. Keeon Virgile was dismissed this summer.
The 4-2-5 scheme that coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch are installing is getting a lot of attention, and it will certainly be interesting to watch it unfold. Keep in mind, however, exactly the kind of makeup of players who executed that scheme at Southern Mississippi in 2011: a starting unit of seven seniors, three third-year players and one true sophomore.
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has covered Tar Heel football since 1990 through “Extra Points” and has worked the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network broadcasts since 2004.