As National Signing Day approaches, we're cranking up our football recruiting coverage. We're going through the ACC's six key states (for this year at least, we still consider Maryland to be one of those six) checking in on how the league's schools are faring in the race to bring in top talent.
So far we've checked out South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and Florida. We're continuing today with Sammy Batten's look at ACC recruiting in North Carolina in this cycle.
NOTE: Obviously some of this is - particularly the On The Table section - subject to change over the next day or so.
The Atlantic Coast Conference not only ended the Southeastern Conference's streak of seven straight national championships with Florida State's win against Auburn last month, it also snapped a two-year streak of recruiting dominance by the SEC in its own backyard.
The state of North Carolina, where the ACC office is located and its football championship game is played, was heavily poached by SEC programs during the last two recruiting cycles. The SEC claimed eight of the top-20 ranked prospects in the state and nine players overall in both the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes. Those prizes included the state's No. 1-ranked prospect in both years - Tarboro running back Todd Gurley (Georgia) and Charlotte wide receiver Marquez North. Gurley has already generated more than 2,000 yards rushing in two seasons with the Bulldogs, while North made the Freshman All-SEC squad last season with the Volunteeers.
But as college football's national signing day approaches for 2014, the SEC's hold on North Carolina high school talent seems to be slipping. The SEC was still a presence, securing verbal commitments from top-rated players like Havelock running back Derrell Scott (Tennessee), Charlotte quarterback Will Grier (Florida) and Fayetteville defensive lineman Lamont Gaillard (Georgia).
The ACC, however, is expected to sign 14 of the top-20 ranked players from this state this time around, including the consensus No. 1 prospect, Charlotte Catholic High running back Elijah Hood. Hood, after previously committing to Notre Dame, reversed that decision in late August and pledged instead to North Carolina. Hood enrolled at UNC in the spring semester where he's expected to compete immediately for playing time during spring practice.
Overall, nine of the 15 ACC football programs, including newcomer Louisville, have dipped into the Class of 2014 talent pool in North Carolina. Forty-one players stand committed to ACC teams and at least one more prominent prospect could be added to that list on national signing day.
Here's a closer look at the big prospects the ACC landed, the ones it lost and my take on which team enjoyed the most success recruiting North Carolina this year.
MAJOR ACC SCORES
1. ELIJAH HOOD, RB (5-11, 220) CHARLOTTE CATHOLIC
Hood is Herschel Walker reincarnated. He's a broad-shouldered, thick-thighed powerhouse who shakes off tacklers like fleas. But just as Walker did for Georgia back in the 1980s, Hood also has the speed to run away from defenders when he clears the line of scrimmage. As a senior, Hood set Mecklenburg County records by rushing for 3,690 yards and 53 touchdowns in a performance that earned him state player of the year honors from The Associated Press and national player of the year as selected by the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He completed his prep career with 8,981 rushing yards to rank fourth on the state's all-time list, while his 147 rushing touchdowns are third. Notre Dame initially earned Hood's verbal commitment last April after an on-campus visit over a lengthy list of suitors. But as high schools kicked off their preseason practices in August, Hood announced via Twitter he was re-opening his recruitment, which immediately excited fans at his runner-up pick, UNC. It was later revealed the distance between South Bend and Charlotte was an issue for Hood. So, after rushing 37 times for 323 yards and five touchdowns in the 2013 season opener, Hood changed his pledge to the Tar Heels. Landing Hood marked the second straight year UNC has picked up the state's top running back, following Greensboro's T.J. Logan to Chapel Hill. Because he enrolled at UNC in January, Hood will start competing with Logan for the starting job during spring practice.
2. TREVION THOMPSON, WR (6-3, 188) DURHAM HILLSIDE
Thompson hails from a Hillside High program that has been one of the state's top producers of major-college talent in recent years. Greg Little (UNC, Cleveland Browns), Vad Lee (formerly of Georgia Tech), Khris Francis (UNC) and Korrin Wiggins (Clemson) are just some of the players who are part of Hillside's rich tradition. But Thompson is a unique talent, even for the Hornets. He's a long-striding, long-armed receiver who can go up in a crowd and almost always come down with the football. Thompson hauled in 57 catches as a senior for 989 yards and 14 scores to earn first-team All-PAC 6 4-A Conference honors. The recruiting process for Thompson was much less public than for most recruits of his stature. He established a top list of schools several times, then started over again before coming up with a final five of Clemson, N.C. State, North Carolina, Ohio State and West Virginia. Thompson held off making a decision until taking an official visit to Clemson where he committed on January 19. This was a key pledge for the Tigers, who lost their top two receivers from 2013 - juniors Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant - a year early to the NFL Draft. With another top receiver, Charone Peake, coming back from an ACL injury, Thompson could be one of the freshmen Clemson looks at to fill those voids.
3. BENTLEY SPAIN, OL (6-6, 285) CHARLOTTE PROVIDENCE
How good of a prospect is Spain? Well, he only played one game during his junior season after hyperextending his knee and suffering a fracture in the 2012 season opener. Despite his limited action, dozens of major programs had extended scholarship offers by the end of that year, including LSU, Michigan, South Carolina, Stanford and Virginia. By the spring of 2013, Spain had narrowed his options to North Carolina and Stanford. He had the Tar Heel coaching staff on the edge of their seats when he flew to Palo Alto, Calif., to inspect the Stanford campus in early July. Upon returning home, Spain issued a "media blackout'' for about a week in which he declined to talk about his recruitment. He then surprised the UNC coaching staff on July 19 by showing up at their summer camp to personally give them his commitment. Strong in pass protection and a physical run blocker, Spain is now seen as the heir apparent to UNC's all-star left tackle James Hurst, who completed his eligibility in December. Because he's already enrolled at UNC, Spain will get a chance this spring to follow in Hurst's footsteps and earn a starting job as a true freshman.
4. HAROLD LANDRY, LB-DE (6-3, 240) FAYETTEVILLE PINE FOREST
Landry's name may be a surprise on this list to many because he wasn't even the most highly touted prospect on his high school team. That distinction belonged to Georgia-bound defensive line prospect Lamont Gaillard. But most analysts and local observers will tell you that Landry is the better prospect for the immediate future and the long term. A hybrid defensive line-linebacker athlete, Landry is capable of putting his hand down and rushing the passer or standing up and dropping into pass coverage. Perhaps because he'd been overshadowed by Gaillard, Landry wasn't on many recruiting radars last April, when Boston College struck first with a scholarship offer. Almost immediately other offers poured in from major programs such as Auburn, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Mississippi, N.C. State, North Carolina, Ohio State, South Carolina, Syracuse and Tennessee. Landry ignored the temptation, stuck to his original pledge and enrolled at Boston College in January, where he'll be groomed this spring as a potential replacement for graduating defensive end Kasim Edebali. Landry arrived in Boston fresh off a senior campaign in which he produced 96 tackles and eight quarterback sacks to earn defensive player of the year honors in Fayetteville's tough Mid-South 4-A Conference.
T5. CAYSON COLLINS, LB (6-2, 215) CHARLOTTE PHILLIP O'BERRY ACADEMY AND GERMAINE PRATT, LB (6-3, 200) HIGH POINT CENTRAL
These two are together because I couldn't imagine leaving them out of this category, and they're sort of similar prospects in a lot of ways. First, they are physical specimens who immediately pass the eye test. They're quick, agile athletes with aggressive attitudes, and both made early decisions about their college choice (Collins committed to UNC last April and Pratt to N.C. State last June). But the potential both Collins and Pratt have shown as defensive playmakers is the talent that makes me believe they'll become college stars. Collins, whose long arms allow him to play much taller than his height, was the defensive player of the year in Charlotte's SoMeck 4-A Conference as a senior, after making 139 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and five fumble recoveries. Pratt was a first-team all-state selection after recording 104 tackles, two tackles for loss, and five interceptions as a safety. Both players could use a year develop, but they're going to be strong candidates to play at least on special teams as true freshmen. However, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack could both use some immediate help at linebacker so don't be surprised if Collins and Pratt land backup roles at linebacker, too.
MAJOR ACC MISSES
1. DERRELL SCOTT, RB (5-10, 181) HAVELOCK HS
Scott is a "Gio Bernard'' type back, who can take a swing pass all the way to the house, or break off a 96-yard touchdown run like he did in the December state finals as Havelock won a third straight state title. During that three-year championship run, Scott rushed for 1,807 yards and 22 scores as a sophomore, 1,742 yards and 34 touchdowns as a junior and 2,143 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior. N.C. State was an early frontrunner for his services and seemed like a perfect fit for his big-play talents. But as fall turned to winter, schools such as Ohio State, South Carolina and ACC-member Florida State began to turn Scott's head. The Seminoles were out of the race by December, interest in the Wolfpack was fading while the Gamecocks and Volunteers rotated as Scott's favorites. He finally decided on January 27 to play for Tennessee, which was sort of surprising since the Vols already have five-star running back prospect Jalen Hurd on campus this spring.
2. WILL GRIER, QB (6-2, 180) DAVIDSON DAY
Only two other North Carolina passers - Jonathan Crompton from Waynesville, Tucsola in 2005 and Charlotte Independence's Chris Leak in 2003 - have been rated as highly by national analysts as Grier. Like that distinguised duo before him, Grier is rated the nation's No. 2 quarterback prospect by Rivals.com. Of course, Grier is No. 2 in the dual-threat category because of his ability to make plays with his feet as well as his arm. But it's as a passer that Grier has built his reputation. The son of former ECU quarterback Chad Grier, who is also his prep head coach, Will gained national acclaim near the end of his junior year when he threw for an incredible 837 yards and 10 touchdowns in a state playoff shootout against Harrells Academy. He followed up with an equally eye-opening senior season in which he completed 314 of 446 passes for 4,989 yards and 77 scores. There was very little suspense in Grier's recruitment as he named Florida as his choice, despite heavy interest from ACC programs N.C. State and UNC. He's already enrolled at Florida and is already being projected as the backup next season to Jeff Driskel, which means he's one injury away from becoming the Gators starter as a true freshman.
3. DEANDRE THOMPKINS, WR (5-11, 175) SWANSBORO HS
Thompkins may be the most versatile prospect in North Carolina this season. He's performed at quarterback, running back, receiver, strong safety and as a kick returner over the past three seasons at Swansboro. He excelled at almost every one of those as a junior when he collected 1,359 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing, scored touchdowns passing and receiving, returned five of 11 kickoffs or punts for touchdowns and made 42 tackles. Although his statistics declined some as a senior, Thompkins still "managed'' to produce 968 all-purpose yards and 13 scores. Penn State picked up an early commitment from Thompkins during its spring game last April, but that started to look shaky when Bill O'Brien left the Nittany Lions for the NFL's Houston Texans in December. There was speculation that Thompkins might flip his pledge to North Carolina. Thompkins nipped those rumors in the bud by reconfirming his commitment to Penn State in early January and enrolling for the spring semester. He'll play a slot receiver position for the Nittany Lions and new head coach James Franklin.
4. JEB BLAZEVICH, TE (6-5, 235) CHARLOTTE CHRISTIAN
Blazevich is the "new age'' version of a tight end. He's capable of playing the traditional role with his hand on the ground, throwing blocks for the run or weaving his way underneath to make the short catch. Or, he can line up in the slot and sting a defense by getting into the secondary to make catches. Those are exactly the abilities he used to rack up 104 career catches for 1,520 yards and 15 touchdowns during a four-year varsity career at Charlotte Christian. Clemson made a big play for Blazevich early on as did most of the Southeastern Conference (8 offers from SEC teams). He made an early commitment last April to Georgia, where he's expected to compete for immediate playing time as a freshman.
5. LAMONT GAILLARD, DL (6-3, 300) FAYETTEVILLE PINE FOREST
Gaillard is a physical powerhouse with bulk that made it difficult for prep opponents to open any holes up the middle against Pine Forest. Over his final two high school seasons, Gaillard logged 182 tackles on a defensive unit that also featured Boston College pledge Harold Landry. Georgia landed the verbal commitment from Gaillard last July and he seemed solid with the Bulldogs until the last month when Miami seemed to be causing him to have some second thoughts. Gaillard remains committed to Georgia as signing day approaches, but he did take an official visit to Miami on Jan. 31 that could lead him to flip on signing day.
STILL ON THE TABLE
1. DONTE THOMAS-WILLIAMS, RB (6-2, 221) DURHAM HILLSIDE
Because he was overshadowed as a junior by the presence of UNC signee Khris Francis in the Hillside backfield, Thomas-Williams' recruitment developed late. But his combination of speed and power eventually led to a dozen or more offers from the likes of Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State, UCLA and Virginia Tech. Florida State and West Virginia jumped out as the early leaders, but N.C. State has come on strong of late. Still, it looks like Thomas-Williams will wind up playing for the Mountaineers. It's one of those rare seasons in North Carolina where Thomas-Williams is really the only prominent prospect still uncommitted as we head into national signing day.
THE WINNER IS ...
One of the questions we had about Dave Doeren when he took over as head coach at N.C. State was what kind of recruiter would he be in a region where neither he nor most of his coaching staff had experience. Well, Doeren has erased any doubts by securing commitments from 16 in-state prospects, five of whom are already enrolled for the spring semester.
Highlighting the Wolfpack's class are Greenville defensive lineman Kentavious Street, regarded as one of the state's top 10 prospects by almost everyone, and Burlington offensive lineman Will Richardson, who flipped from Virginia to N.C. State in January. But the talent doesn't end there as lower-rated guys like Winston-Salem defensive tackle DeShawyne Middleton, High Point linebacker Germaine Pratt, Durham wide receiver Maurice Trowell and Wilmington linebacker Coult Culler - a Ted Hendricks clone at 6-5, 230 - are also special talents.
Doeren is also bringing in the state's No. 2 quarterback prospect behind Grier, Jaylen McClendon, a dual-threat player from Charlotte.
UNC's Larry Fedora also made his mark with a strong performance in the talent-rich Charlotte area. Fedora not only landed state Top 10 prospects in Hood and Spain from the Queen City, he picked up Collins at linebacker, defensive lineman Robert Dinkins, underrated wide receiver Austin Proehl (Yes, former Wake star Ricky's son) and big-time punter prospect Corbin Daly, who switched from Texas to UNC after Mack Brown's resignation.
Throw in Jacksonville wide receiver Josh Cabrera and a much-needed placekicker in Bunn's Freeman Jones, and the Tar Heels can nearly match the Wolfpack with in-state quality, if not quantity.
Clemson will sign three big-time prospects in Thompson, Greensboro linebacker Chris Register and Fayetteville safety Jeff Gibson, while national champion Florida State coralled two defensive linemen with great potential in Greensboro's Lorenzo Featherston and Fayetteville's Arthur Williams.
It will probably be another year before Duke can capitalize on its record-setting 2013 season, but the Blue Devils did grab a couple of quality in-state prospects in multi-purpose Graham athlete Jonathan Lloyd and Mocksville offensive lineman Tripp McNeill. Lloyd has already enrolled at Duke and will get a shot at playing quarterback this spring. But he's more likely to see action quicker at wide receiver with Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette still around in Durham.
Monroe wide receiver Jaylan Barbour and Charlotte running back Isaiah Robinson are two quality prospects in a small in-state crop of players expected to sign with Wake Forest and new head coach Dave Clawson.
Miami also slipped in to snare a North Carolina gem in wide receiver Braxton Berrios from Raleigh. Berrios lacks the size and speed of some of the other top receivers in the state, but he may have the surest hands and is the sharpest route runner of the bunch.