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Bunting's Rebuilding Project Complicated By Unc's Class Of 2000 Disaster

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn, ACCSports.com
Oct. 20, 2003 CHAPEL HILL — One of the primary explanations for North Carolina's miserable record in football during the past two seasons is that only nine of the 19 players who signed with the Tar Heels in February 2000 remain on the roster.

That represents the worst attrition rate in the ACC for signees from the Class of 2000, a group of players who are taking the field this fall as seniors or (for those who redshirted at some point) fourth-year juniors. In theory, those veterans should provide a sturdy foundation for every program in the league. In practice, some of those foundations are made of rock and marble, while others consist of shifting sands and broken dreams.

When Florida State coach Bobby Bowden approaches a big game this fall, he does so with the comfort of knowing he has 11 talented, seasoned starters and a half-dozen other experienced contributors from the Class of 2000 on his side. When Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe looks at the top 22 players on his depth chart this season, he quickly finds 11 reasons to send thank-you notes to former Deacons coach Jim Caldwell.

When North Carolina coach John Bunting plays the same game, looking back at the Tar Heels' Class of 2000, he probably has a different message in mind for former UNC coach Carl Torbush. Carolina's count, from a 19-man group: one star, three other full-time starters, several other regular contributors Ö and enough missing persons to start a new branch of the Witness Protection Program.

The reasons behind UNC's many departures range from simple bad luck to academic problems to multiple arrests to unexpected transfers to a demanding new coach to the usual growing pains of a major college football leadership transition. Every program loses some players, but more than 50 percent of a single class? That doesn't happen very often.

“We knew when we got here (in December 2000) that there were some holes,” Bunting said. “It became obvious early on that there were a lot of holes.”

“It tells me that (Torbush's staff) may have not been very selective,” said Brad Lawing, UNC's first-year recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach. “They either took guys who were academic risks or were athletic suspects.”

Some of the members of Carolina's 2000 class have played a lot of downs for the Tar Heels over the past four seasons, but even in that group there are few standouts.

Offensive tackles Willie McNeill and Skip Seagraves have become multi-year starters in an area of great need, but the Heels' veteran line has been a source of disappointment over the last two seasons. Defensive tackle Jonas Seawright became a starter for the first time this fall, after battling conditioning problems and contributing very little during his first three years on campus, but UNC continues to be porous at the line of scrimmage.

Quarterback Darian Durant is the only other 2000 signee who has developed into a full-time starter, and he's exactly the kind of player Bunting hopes to find in greater quantities. Durant has wrestled with leadership and work ethic issues during his time in Chapel Hill, he's never been a great practice player, and he even announced (in February 2002) plans to transfer to another school at one point. But he's improved in every area since deciding to remain at UNC, and there are no doubts about his production on the field.

“I love my quarterback (Matt Schaub), and I'm a big fan of (N.C. State's) Philip Rivers,” Virginia coach Al Groh said recently, “but Darian Durant is as good as any quarterback in the league.”

A prep All-American from South Carolina, Durant became UNC's career leader in touchdown passes (42), pass completions (430), pass attempts (700) and passing yards (5,461) earlier this year, and as a redshirt junior he still has a season and a half left to play. Before he's finished, he's likely to also own the Heels' career records for total offense and completion percentage.

“The difference-maker in Darian Durant is his competitive juices,” Bunting said. “On game day, he's a different guy. He has learned how to prepare better. He has grown as a person, and he's grown as a quarterback. He's much more responsible in terms of taking care of the football and making good decisions.”

Durant easily is the star of UNC's 2000 class. Defensive tackle Jermicus Banks, linebacker Devllen Bullard, linebacker Clarence Gaddy, defensive end Madison Hedgecock and wide receiver Brandon Russell have started some games, but they mainly have come off the bench. All but Bullard, a sleeper with little other Division I-A interest on the recruiting trail, was highly regarded coming out of high school. Banks and Gaddy originally planned to sign with N.C. State, but they switched to Carolina after coach Mike O'Cain was fired by NCSU and joined Torbush's staff in Chapel Hill.

Hedgecock, a consensus prep All-American, started for a year and a half at fullback before moving over to help an ailing defense midway through the 2002 season. He's a tough, hard-nosed player, a hard worker and a reliable special-teams performer, but he's more of a grinder than a playmaker. Gaddy, another consensus prep All-American, hasn't always been passionate about football, and he lost his starting job to true freshman Melik Brown during spring practice. Russell started eight games at tailback as a true freshman, but Bunting moved him in 2001 to receiver, where Russell has been a decent second-teamer.

“There are obviously some very positive guys in that 2000 group,” said assistant coach Kenny Browning, who has worked for three different head coaches at UNC since 1994. “They have made contributions and continue to.”

Nevertheless, the Tar Heels have not gotten nearly enough production from this group. In fact, there are more Class of 2000 signees who are no longer playing football at Carolina than there are on the Heels' 2003 roster.

Former tailback Andre' Williams, who led UNC in rushing in 2001 with 520 yards, suffered the misfortune of a career-ending injury. Ranked by many as the top player in North Carolina during his senior year at Northern Durham High, Williams injured his back, missed most of the 2002 season and had to give up football. He still excels in school, having been recognized as a member of the ACC's athletic honor roll. Coaches said Williams is everything they seek as a player and a student. He just needed a little more luck when it came to staying healthy.

“Andre' Williams is working in football operations on a daily basis,” Bunting said. “It is extremely important to me because of his attitude and his commitment to the University of North Carolina in getting his degree.”

Offensive lineman Justin Barton and defensive end Larry Jessup also received medical waivers, which allow athletes to continue to attend school on scholarship without counting toward the NCAA's 85-scholarship limit. Barton had worked his way up to second-team status as a redshirt freshman in 2001 before suffering a serious knee injury. Jessup, another one of Torbush's sleepers who didn't pan out, played sparingly before having to leave the team because of recurring shoulder problems.

Others left UNC for much different reasons, and one signee never arrived at all. Highly regarded tailback Jason Crawford, who shocked home-state Maryland when he faxed his letter of intent to Carolina in 2000, failed to qualify academically. He disappointed the Tar Heels the next year while at prep school, reneging on a commitment and signing with the Terps. He quit the Maryland team earlier this year, after a tumultuous and unproductive career.

Four in-state products, linebacker Kitwana Jones, quarterback Aaron Leak, defensive back Jovon Lewis and defensive back Bryant Macklin, were dismissed for off-the-field troubles. Jones signed with UNC after a year of prep school.

“I'm committed to developing a winning football program with players who will represent this university in a first-class manner on and off the field,” Bunting said in 2002. “I'm disappointed in the off-field actions of a few of our players.”

“Coach Bunting may react a lot quicker than other coaches,” Durant said. “Look at Florida State. How many guys get in trouble there? Coach (Bobby) Bowden is going to let them stay on the team. That may be the difference.”

Jones already was on suspension for violating team rules when he was arrested in January 2002 on assault charges stemming from an on-campus altercation. He played for UNC as a true freshman in 2000 and again in 2001, mostly on special teams. After his dismissal, he resurfaced at Division I-AA Hampton, where he has become a very productive linebacker. In 2002, he ranked among team leaders with 70 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and three sacks for a 7-5 team. Through five games this fall, he had a team-high 50 tackles, seven tackles for loss and two sacks in the Pirates' 4-1 start.

Leak, a prep All-American from Durham, also found trouble off the field. After falling behind Durant during his first (redshirt) year on campus, Leak and teammate Ronnie Bryant were arrested in December 2001 for their roles in the theft of a $40,000 Audi automobile. They were charged with felony counts of larceny and possession of stolen property. The pair later admitted they had gone on a “joyride” with the vehicle, but they wrecked the car and initially lied about the presence of a (nonexistent) third person in the events. Following university guidelines relating to athletes with felony charges, Bunting immediately suspended both players from the team, and the coach later dismissed Leak. After playing at Jones County Community College in Mississippi in 2002, Leak considered signing with Alabama, East Carolina or Louisville, but he lost his offers when there were coaching changes at all three schools. He is the starting QB at Division I-A Troy State this fall, as a redshirt junior. Through seven games for a 4-3 team, he completed 57 of 125 passing attempts for 787 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“I didn't really take football seriously (at UNC) like I should have, and it was all my fault,” Leak said. “I didn't understand the commitment required to be a good football player, and I made some bad decisions (off the field). I didn't like it when they tried to tell me the right way, but now I understand. I'm lucky I got a second chance.”

Lewis, who was dismissed by Bunting in 2001 for violating team rules, resurfaced at Southwest Missouri State. He played there in 2001, sat out 2002, then earned a starting spot at linebacker this fall. Through seven games, he had 27 tackles and an interception for a touchdown. Macklin, who was dismissed during the 2002 season for disciplinary reasons, has not resurfaced with another team.

“A lot of guys got in trouble,” Durant said. “Some guys just didn't have the love for the game. It was just tough for some guys to switch over to the type of discipline that Coach Bunting put forth. Coach Torbush was a lot more lenient. There weren't as many rules. I'm not going to say you could pretty much do what you wanted to do, but there are a lot of things we have to do now that we didn't have to do then.

“Different guys respond different ways. It just depends on how you were brought up. If you were brought up in a real strict household, the rules won't be hard to adapt to. But guys whose parents are very lenient, it was tough. That might have been a reason we lost a lot of guys.”

Some players chafed at the new discipline instituted by Bunting and his assistants upon his arrival three years ago. From the outset, Bunting insisted that the players attend class, avoid confrontations with the law, take conditioning sessions seriously and approach football in a competitive, passionate manner.

Defensive tackle Isaac Montgomery, a West Virginia product, redshirted in 2000 and played very little in Bunting's first season. Upon transferring to Virginia Tech in 2002, he said he liked Bunting and UNC but clashed with defensive tackles coach Rod Broadway, who ended up being fired after the 2002 season. A second-team player this fall, Montgomery had 11 tackles through five games for the top-five Hokies.

Punter Blake Ferguson, an Oklahoma native who started as a true freshman under Torbush, left school during preseason camp in 2001. Two days after Bunting told reporters he was opening up the punting spot for competition, Ferguson and his father requested a meeting with the coach. The player quit the team the next day, forcing the Heels to hand the job to walk-on John Lafferty. Ferguson previously said he was looking forward to the Heels' game that fall at defending national champion Oklahoma, where his brother Jeff was the starting punter. Blake, citing homesickness, transferred to OU and immediately earned the starting job after sitting out the 2001 season under NCAA transfer rules. He's the Sooners' starter again this year.

“It seems to me as if he was afraid to compete,” Bunting told the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun in August 2001. “That's not the kind of football player I want to have around here. I was absolutely stunned and surprised. Ö I think he's afraid. I think he was afraid to go out and kick against his brother at Oklahoma. He'd rather travel home and watch the game.”

The real key is making the correct choices in recruiting, UNC's coaches said. The buzzword today, whether it is in the NFL or in college recruiting, is “character.”

“Character is huge,” Lawing said. “If you have kids who have character, they are going to be with your program. They are going to be there the whole time. And kids with character, in my opinion, improve faster because character usually means effort, their effort on the field, their effort in the classroom, their effort to learn what we do during meetings. Character. I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

NCAA regulations make getting to know players harder, though, because much of the contact allowed in the past is prohibited today.

“We don't know them as well as we used to many years ago, when we could see them all the time,” Lawing said. “But we do as thorough a job as possible, not only to get to know that kid but to get to know the people he hangs around with, his family. We ask a lot of questions. We ask questions of coaches, school administrators. Coach Bunting is big about that, and it's good. We're going to find out about that kid. Yeah, it can be masked. We can get sold a bill of goods sometimes, but we really try to the best of our ability to make good decisions in recruiting.

“We don't want recruiting mistakes. I don't worry about the kids that we don't get. I worry about the ones that we get.”

Browning said the selection process continues right up until signing day. When a kid takes a recruiting visit to UNC, the school and the coaching staff are not the only ones being judged.

“There are some schools, they really don't want to retain them,” Browning said. “If they're not good enough, they want them gone. You've got different priorities. At Carolina we do need to keep them. We do need to make good decisions before we bring them in so they are going to make it and be successful academically, socially and athletically.

“They've got to be successful in all three areas here. Making that selection is really important. Some of it is a gut feeling. There has to be some of that on the part of the guy recruiting him. Then when he comes on his visit, you're still evaluating, ëDoes he fit here?' That has always been a big part of the official visit. We've cut some guys loose because of that weekend. We weren't sure after input from our players whether that guy would fit here. That's a big part of it.”

The addition of stricter discipline obviously has hurt UNC in the short term. A huge chunk of the junior and senior classes is missing. In the long run, however, Browning said he's convinced the program and the kids who sign on will benefit.

“Coach (Bunting) is very concerned with a young man's future after football,” Browning said. “You don't play in that league (the NFL) and don't see what can happen in places where academics aren't stressed. He tells stories Ö where a guy doesn't know how to write a check and he played four years at a college. He's going to make sure that doesn't happen here with a guy. From the standpoint of demanding the academic accountability, there is more being expected of them now. Is that wrong? No.”

Maybe not, but it has contributed to the team's struggles. The kids have had to learn to trust the new staff and its demands.

“A lot of it is part of growing up,” Durant said. “You mature as you get older and realize the things he asks us to do are real small things. They require waking up early in the morning, which a lot of guys don't like to do. But once you're up, you just come over here and check in for meals and things like that. He's not asking a lot out of you.”

“It takes a while for those kids to understand what you're doing is for them rather than to them,” Browning said. “Discipline is really something you're doing for them to make it better for them. It's like your own kid sometimes. It can be unpopular if it's something they don't want to do. That's hard for them, if they're not used to that. The longer you're around them and they get to understand that ëhe does care about me beyond football,' then the more they buy into that.”

Eddy Landreth of the Chapel Hill (N.C.) News also contributed to this report.

 

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