By David Glenn and staff
ACCSports.com October 26, 2005
Coaches always say you can't judge a recruiting class until three or four years down the road, so we decided to do just that. With hindsight as our guide, we examined the ACC football recruiting classes of 2002 and posted new grades for them, based on the production of those players four years into their college careers.
Not surprisingly, perennial national powers and 2005 ACC title contenders Virginia Tech and Florida State -- who says recruiting rankings are meaningless? -- led the way in 2002, with plenty of signees who are thriving on the field this fall as seniors and redshirt juniors. At the other end of the spectrum, North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech are struggling (to various degrees) this season, with little help from the Class of 2002.
Part I Of A Two-Part Series
With Winning Ways Established, Hokies Solidified Program Wake Forest: Grobe Created Firm Foundation Boston College: Stability Lured Solid Bunch Clemson: Class Fairly Productive North Carolina: Heels Regret Missed Opportunity Georgia Tech: Gailey Transition Left Huge Hole
WITH WINNING WAYS ESTABLISHED, HOKIES SOLIDIFIED PROGRAMWhen Virginia Tech's 2002 football recruiting class first set foot on campus as a group, the weight of the world had to be on its shoulders. The 18 new scholarship players, plus five Class of 2001 holdovers, knew what they were getting into when they arrived in Blacksburg.
They'd seen the level of success Tech had achieved in recent seasons. It was their job to sustain it, to make sure the program didn't take a step back over the next four seasons. It was something not every observer believed the class was capable of doing.
Those observers were wrong.
Tech's 2002 class was rated all over the boards by the analysts -- as high as 17th in the nation by Scout.com, as low as 45th by Rivals.com -- but everyone agreed that there was plenty of talent on hand. Defensive tackle Jonathan Lewis was a consensus prep All-American. Defensive back Jimmy Williams was one of the nation's best high school safeties. Wide receiver Fred Lee was another hot commodity. Oh, and Marcus Vick was considered one of the nation's best quarterbacks, thanks to his astounding high school career ... and the promise his last name carried.
Whether or not the recruiting gurus were overwhelmed by the class, Tech coach Frank Beamer knew exactly what he had: enough talent to keep the future looking bright.
"We're pleased with the ones we got," Beamer said in February 2002. "We got 16 out of 20 (signees) from the state (of Virginia), and I don't know who they rank up there and all that stuff, but I know this: We'll take ours and go play theirs and feel good about it."
Beamer and his assistants didn't have to do much to sell the 2002 class on what they were trying to build. As a matter of fact, the glory years already were in full swing. Tech went 30-6 from 1999-2001, including an appearance in the national championship game after the 1999 season with Marcus' brother, Michael, leading the way at quarterback.
Of course, none of the scholarship players or walk-ons from the Class of 2002 could've had any idea what the next four years would bring. Through the Maryland game this season, Tech had gone
35-12 since the start of 2002. The class has helped the Hokies jump out to 6-0 records in three of the last four seasons. Despite the quick starts, and going to three bowl games, Tech has been to only one BCS game (the Sugar Bowl last season) in that span.
Perhaps the past three seasons all have been a build-up to this year. No other class of recruits had a bigger impact on Tech's fast start this fall than the 2002 kids. A total of 10 players from the group have started more than half of the team's games this season. That's why players such as Williams feel increased responsibility when it comes to the overall win-loss record.
Williams is one of six players from 2002 who has switched positions at some point in his career. He started at free safety in 2003, then moved to cornerback before the 2004 season. After Tech's 45-0 win against Ohio this fall, Williams had an opportunity to evaluate his performance. He hadn't had many balls thrown in his direction, but he still wasn't pleased with his effort.
"I haven't played up to my potential at times this season," Williams said. "I've got to play better. These guys deserve better from me."
His coach, among many others, offered a more positive assessment. Beamer hasn't always been thrilled with every aspect of Williams' game. Just last year, the player was banned from speaking to the media after he made incendiary comments prior to the much-hyped Southern California matchup. Earlier in his career, Williams blew up at fiery defensive coordinator Bud Foster on the sidelines, rather than accepting some in-your-face criticism for his mistakes on the field. This season, though, everything seems to be coming together nicely.
"Jimmy's doing great right now as far as being a team player here, respecting his teammates and being a great senior leader," Beamer said. "He's covering people like a blanket and has really played well and has confidence."
In truth, Williams has very little to be ashamed of when it comes to fulfilling his potential. He was one of five players from the 2002 class to earn at least honorable mention all-conference distinction last year, in Tech's first season in the ACC. Williams, defensive end Darryl Tapp (another preseason All-America candidate) and kicker Brandon Pace, a 2002 walk-on, were first-team selections. Offensive tackle Jimmy Martin, who has achieved the rare feat of being a four-year starter, and Lewis were honorable mentions.
Each of those high-level performers is an in-state product, as is Vick, a clear-cut frontrunner for first-team All-ACC honors this season.
"The day I took the job here, I said if we keep the best players in Virginia at Virginia Tech, we'll have a chance to play for the national championship, and I believe that very same thing today," Beamer said. "I think we have good coaches and good players in this state. We've really made an effort to recruit well in the state. I think the records would show that we have, particularly in the last few years. You look at our roster, and it is further proof that we are winning with a lot of Virginia kids."
Pace, who had a string of nine straight field goals made at one point this season, isn't the only example of a player from the 2002 class who faced adversity or long odds to become a major contributor for Tech. He earned a scholarship last season, long after he had earned the respect of his teammates.
"He's really a very solid person, a very solid individual," Beamer said. "I think that carries over to his kicking, too. He's a very dependable guy. I'm glad he's on my team. His teammates really like him, and that's not always true of kickers. Sometimes teammates don't even know who their kicker is. That's the thing I've noticed: He's got great respect among his teammates. The fact that he works so hard, he cares so much, is very obvious to them."
Fullback Jesse Allen also was a walk-on who worked his way up the depth chart. He started two games in 2004, then two of Tech's first seven games this season.
At 5-7 and 195 pounds, Mike Imoh was thought by some observers to be too small to carry much of the offensive load. He has proven otherwise with his versatility. He played receiver and was one of the nation's top kick returners in 2003. Last season, he started nine games at tailback and had a Tech single game-record 243 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries in the team's 27-24 win at North Carolina. He started four of the first seven games this season at tailback, while battling minor injuries.
"(Recruiters questioning his size) definitely happened more than one time," Imoh said. "It's always in the back of your head. You don't forget things like that. Certain things stay with you, as motivation. Someone tells you that you can't do it, it gives you a lot more reason to want to go out there and do it. I don't want anyone to say I can't do anything. That's one of the big things I harp on. It drives me insane when someone says I can't do something."
Then there has been Vick's journey. Despite nearly winning the starting quarterback job over senior Bryan Randall in the spring of 2004, Vick was suspended for the entire season because of arrests in January 2004 on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and in July on charges of marijuana possession and reckless driving. He accepted plea agreements on all of the charges and didn't serve any jail time.
This season, Vick has emerged as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate. He's not quite as athletic as his famous brother -- who is? -- but he's significantly better at the same stage in terms of pocket passing, throwing accuracy and game management. Through six games, he led the ACC and was second nationally in passing efficiency (177.2), a number that (if sustained) would be the best single-season mark in league history.
"He runs our team," Beamer said. "He's very much in control. He's the calmest guy on our sideline as far as I can tell, and that's the mark of a good quarterback and a good leader for your offense. He's always got it under control."
Tapp's perspective on what it has taken to mold a winner this season also doubles as the approach Tech's players have taken to teammates such as Vick. The 2002 class bought into the concept of team chemistry being the most important ingredient to success, just as Beamer had demanded prior to last season.
"You've got to stay together as a family," Tapp said. "You've got to go out here and work, sweat, bleed and do all these things, and carry it out onto the field. We've got to stay together, pick each other up when we make bad plays, and stay focused."
It wasn't an easy ride for all of the 2002 signees, especially Lee. A consensus prep All-American from Pennsylvania, he wound up being the biggest disappointment of the class. He originally signed with Tech in 2001 but had to spend a year at Milford Academy in Connecticut before re-signing in 2002. That's when things got sketchy.
He redshirted during his first season in Blacksburg, then left school after being mired deep on the depth chart at receiver in 2003. Beamer speculated at the time that Lee might wind up at Michigan State or Pittsburgh, but Lee never popped up on either roster.
Instead, he went to Pasadena (Calif.) City College for the remainder of the 2003 season. After that journey, he disappeared, only to resurface as a Temple signee in 2005. His plans changed again during the summer. He finally settled at Indiana-Pennsylvania, a Division II program, where he had nine catches for 80 yards through IUP's first seven games this fall.
While Lee may be the most well-traveled of Tech's 2002 recruits, Andrew Fleck, Demetrius Hodges, Antoine Rutherford, Lamar Veney and Jimmy E. Williams (no relation to the aforementioned Jimmy Williams) also went elsewhere to continue their careers. In some cases, Tech was the wrong fit for them. In others, the player wasn't right for Tech.
Fleck, a native of Edmond, Okla., was already an oddball when he came to Tech. The state of Oklahoma is about as fertile recruiting territory for Tech as the moon. Fleck redshirted in 2002, didn't contribute much in 2003 and played in five games at tight end and on special teams in 2004.
With a depth chart full of capable tight ends ahead of him, including current All-ACC caliber talent Jeff King, Fleck decided it was time to take his services elsewhere. He transferred to Stephen F. Austin, a Division I-AA program in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he was moved to defensive end. Despite not being able to make an impact on the field at Tech, he did leave the university with a degree in human development.
Hodges was another out-of-state recruit who never suited up at Tech. He was a non-qualifier coming out of Cardinal Newman High in West Palm Beach, Fla. After spending two years at Georgia Military College, he signed with East Carolina, and it wound up being a wise decision for him. A starting cornerback at ECU this fall, he had two interceptions through the first six games of the season.
Rutherford also had to go to another school to find success, but only after he ruined his opportunity at Tech. In the spring of 2003, he was charged with brandishing a firearm and three counts of felony assault. He was dismissed from Tech and ended up at Howard, a Division I-AA team in Washington, D.C. Rutherford was recruited as a defensive back at Tech, but he's playing tailback at Howard. He gained 1,050 yards and scored eight touchdowns in nine games last season. This year, he had 293 yards and three TDs in Howard's first six games.
Veney, a defensive lineman, was another non-qualifier who probably would've been overmatched even if he had found a spot on Tech's roster. He ended up at Carson-Newman, a Division II team in Jefferson City, Tenn., and hasn't made much of an impact.
Williams, supposedly a major recruiting coup for the Hokies, was a flop. A native of Memphis, he transferred to Tech after earning junior college All-America honors on the defensive line at Pasadena (Calif.) City College. The Sporting News was among those who misfired on Williams, calling him the 2002 preseason newcomer of the year in the Big East.
Williams never got in good enough shape to give Tech significant minutes on the field. His arrival in Blacksburg was delayed by eligibility complications, and he was suspended indefinitely in the spring of 2003 after an injury-marred 2002 campaign. That summer, he reportedly sold his San Francisco Bowl ring (from 2002) on an eBay auction, for the winning bid of $455. Williams then jumped to Southwest Missouri State, a Division I-AA program that recently changed its name to Missouri State. He now is playing for the San Diego Riptides in Arena Football League2.
Thanks to redshirt years, Tech could get as many as 14 players from the 2002 class back next season. Vick, Pace, rover Aaron Rouse, defensive end Noland Burchette and punter Nic Schmitt all will have at least a season of starting experience under their belts.
That's exactly the kind of foundation Beamer was hoping he could build with this class, one that already has exceeded its relatively solid but certainly mixed expectations.
Points: 210 (7.8 per)
All-League Selections/Candidates: 7
Starters: 12% 44.4
Second Team: 4% Contributors 59.3
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 6
MA FB Jesse Allen^ Starter
VA DE Noland Burchette Starter
VA DT Chris Burnett Career Reserve
VA OL Reggie Butler* Two-Year Starter
FL DB Chris Ceasar Career Reserve
OK TE Andrew Fleck Transfer/S.F. Austin
SC OL Brandon Frye Second Team
VA OL Brandon Gore Second Team
VA WR Brenden Hill Career Reserve (DB)
FL DB Demetrius Hodges Non-Qualifier/ECU
VA RB Mike Imoh* Two-Year Starter
CT WR Fred Lee Transfer/IUP
VA DT Jonathan Lewis* Three-Year Starter
VA OL Jimmy Martin* Four-Year Starter
VA DB Brian McPherson Career Reserve
VA OL Danny McGrath Second Team
VA PK Brandon Pace^ Two-Year Starter
VA WR Robert Parker Career Reserve (DB)
VA DB Aaron Rouse Starter
FL DB Antoine Rutherford Transfer/Howard
VA P Nic Schmitt Starter
VA DE Darryl Tapp* Two-Year Starter
VA DT Lamar Veney Non-Qualifier/Carson-Newman
VA QB Marcus Vick Starter
VA DB Cary Wade Second Team
VA DB Jimmy F. Williams* Three-Year Starter
CA JC DT Jimmy Williams Dismissed/SWMSU
^ - 2002 walk-on ! - I-A transfer # - injured
* - never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall
GROBE CREATED FIRM FOUNDATION
WINSTON-SALEM -- Like any coach taking over a struggling program, Jim Grobe knew he needed to change at least two things immediately when he arrived at Wake Forest in 2001: attitude and talent level.
The first goal could be realized by winning more games, and the second by having success on the recruiting trail. In the long term, the two challenges would go hand in hand.
Amazingly, Grobe managed to do both -- in his own way, and with success being a relative term -- during his first full year in Winston-Salem.
While the Demon Deacons' 6-5 record in 2001 might not have looked like much to outsiders, it was an enormous triumph for Grobe at a school that had only two winning seasons from 1989-2000. Moreover, four of Wake's losses in the coach's debut were by seven points or less, and his team played an exciting, unique brand of football.
That new image for the program simultaneously helped on the recruiting trail, although it was difficult to tell at the time. Grobe's first full class at Wake, which signed in February 2002, was ranked seventh in the nine-team ACC and didn't include a lot of players who were offered scholarships by many BCS-conference programs.
Nevertheless, the Class of 2002 established a pattern Grobe still follows: identifying BCS-caliber prospects who are on "waiting lists" for bigger schools or who have been overlooked, preferably getting them to commit early, signing them, redshirting them and then trusting that his staff can develop them well over the next four or five years.
Grobe worked some of his previous connections from Ohio, and he emphasized speed.
"We backed off some really, really good football players that we felt like would labor a bit playing in the ACC, with the speed we go up against," Grobe said. "In this league, if you can't run, you have no chance to win. We wanted to get some athletic guys who have good foot speed."
In retrospect, the class looks much more solid now than it did at the time. Three players are potential All-ACC performers this year: tailback Chris Barclay, punter Ryan Plackemeier and possibly tackle Steve Vallos. The group also produced nine other starters, only one player (Napolean Sykes) who remains on the team but doesn't play a regular role, and only three defections. The latter number, which directly impacts a program's ability to built depth, is common at an academically oriented school such as Wake but stands in stark contrast to the high attrition rates at many other BCS-conference programs.
Grobe called it a "foundation" class back in 2002, and it has been in some respects. But while a majority of the class is starting this fall, it hasn't been strong enough to propel Wake to winning ACC seasons.
The biggest name in the bunch didn't turn into an All-ACC player, or even a current starter. Bryan Andrews became Wake's first Parade All-American signee in 15 years, but he's struggled to find a position or make an impact. His work ethic has been questioned at times, and his size-speed-strength combination hasn't been a great fit anywhere on the field.
Wake tried Andrews first at linebacker (he was too slow) and then at end, where he's now a backup. Really, the best that can be said for him at this point is that he elevated the program's recruiting profile by creating some media buzz for a while.
The Deacons brought in two other players who had received major Division I-A attention. Defensive end Jyles Tucker -- an extremely rare academic non-qualifier for Wake -- ended up at prep school but later became a contributing member of the Class of 2003. Fullback Damon McWhite is starting for the Deacs this fall, but he lost most of last season to a knee injury that derailed the team's running game.
Another significant move was the signing of defensive backs Josh Gattis and James Adams from in-state powerhouse Northern Durham. Located in the Triangle, its players typically had signed with UNC or N.C. State.
"Not only was it a pretty good pop when we committed them, it's going to pay dividends down the road," Grobe said in 2002. "These are guys we'll be able to hang our hat on a little bit."
Gattis, a track star, has played a significant role in the secondary for two years. Adams, on the other hand, has been injured and is now a little-used linebacker. Another in-state signee was defensive tackle Jamil Smith. He's been hampered by a knee injury, and he hasn't done much as a backup on a mediocre line.
Wake's best players from the Class of 2002 have been Barclay, Plackemeier and Vallos. Barclay and Plackemeier are seniors this fall. Vallos will have another year of eligibility in 2006, having redshirted during his first year along with most of his classmates.
After Barclay's size (5-10, 170) scared off many recruiters during his high school career in Kentucky, he signed with Wake over Boston College and Louisville. Grobe repeatedly talked about Barclay during preseason camp in 2002, and when injuries struck, the youngster was thrown into action.
Barclay has proven to be a perfect back for Grobe's ground-based attack, because he reads blocks well and can accelerate quickly into open space. This fall Barclay is looking for his third straight 1,000-yard campaign, and he's on track to become the first player in the 53-year history of the ACC to lead the conference in rushing (regular season) for a third consecutive year. At his current pace, he'll finish with about 4,000 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns, career numbers that would put him in the top five in league history.
Plackemeier is attempting to become a three-time All-ACC punter, and he also handled the team's kicking duties for parts of each of his first three years. That's not bad for a guy who basically recruited himself to Wake from the other side of the country.
A California product, Plackemeier wasn't listed with the Deacons' 2002 class on signing day, but as a prep senior he had sent unsolicited tapes of his punts to Winston-Salem on the advice of his uncle Jim Israel, a former Wake Forest basketball and baseball player. Grobe later decided to take a chance on Plackemeier, sight unseen, and the risk obviously has paid huge dividends. With the team's kicking game in shambles in 2002, he was pressed into duty as a true freshman.
More than 200 booming punts later, Plackemeier also will leave Wake with his name in the record books. In late October, his career punting average (44.9 yards) ranked as the best in NCAA history, and he kicks the ball high and accurately, too. Only about half of his punts have been returned in 2005, and he's ranked in the top 10 nationally in net punting. At one point this fall, his four-year numbers almost exactly matched those of legendary punter Ray Guy, for whom the national punter of the year award is named.
Vallos, an Ohio product, signed with Wake Forest over Cincinnati, Navy and a bunch of Mid-American Conference schools. He's played almost every play for the last two seasons, while moving up and down the line to fill various holes at guard and tackle.
"The best thing about Steve Vallos is he's so dependable," Grobe said. "He's never complained with anything. He's one of those guys who you really take for granted, because he's there doing his thing every day. He's a great leader for us. He's a guy who not only can tell those guys when something needs to be done, but his example is so good that they just watch him and say, Hey, I want to be like that guy.'"
Wake signed several other linemen in the class. Arby Jones is now in his second year as a starter, and Wesley Bryant is starting at left tackle. A transfer from Florida in 2002, Bryant hasn't quite lived up to his reputation, but he finally has become a solid contributor this season. Dan Callahan has moved from the line to tight end to fullback while in Winston-Salem. He's now back at tight end, where he's used mainly as a blocker off the bench.
Wake signed three quarterbacks in 2002, but none of them is playing that position for the Deacons this fall. Zac Taylor is out of the program (see below), while Nate Morton and Willie Idlette are at wide receiver.
Morton has been a pleasant surprise as one of Wake's most sure-handed receivers, even leading the team in catches last year and so far this year. Idlette, a track star in high school, made an immediate impact at Wake both at receiver and returning punts. But Idlette later struggled to hold onto the ball, and the coaches gradually soured on him. He doesn't see a lot of action this year, despite the team's relatively weak receiving corps.
Another receiver who has fought the drops is Chris Davis, a Florida product with tremendous speed. Grobe pulled the redshirt off Davis in 2002 to try to get some help in the return game, but then Davis ended up not playing much. He's had some flashes of putting it all together, but he's just as likely to make a mistake and get benched.
Three other players from the Class of 2002 are starting on defense.
Pierre Easley was recruited as a nose guard, but his speed allowed Wake to move him to linebacker. He's been a solid player, although he's currently hurt.
Patrick Ghee and Riley Swanson are starters in the defensive backfield. The speedy Ghee has been a fixture, but Swanson has struggled to meet his potential so far. His 2005 season was delayed by a suspension for marijuana possession.
Sykes was a 185-pound receiver when he was recruited, but as his body type changed, so did his position. He is now up to 240 pounds, and he's practiced at receiver, cornerback, tailback, fullback and now linebacker. He hasn't yet made an impact anywhere.
Three players left the program: Taylor, Dustin Abercrombie and Daniel Orlebar.
Taylor, who originally committed to Oklahoma State, got a lot of press this year when he got a chance to play against Wake as the starting quarterback for Nebraska. He left Wake after two years, ending up at Butler County (Kan.) Community College. He starred there, leading the school to the 2004 junior college title game and again catching recruiters' eyes, then quickly earned the starting job in Lincoln. In the Cornhuskers' 5-1 start this fall, Taylor completed 114 of 211 passes for 1,227 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
"The years I was at Wake, they had some quarterbacks who were better than I was, and I kind of saw the writing on the wall," Taylor said. "Those guys were better than me."
Abercrombie, an offensive lineman, was an excellent student from an in-state football power (Kannapolis Brown), and his father played for Marshall when Grobe was an assistant there. Abercrombie played one year for Wake, battled some injuries and then left school. He has not resurfaced at another program.
Orlebar followed his brother Arthur to Wake Forest out of high school, and he followed him to nearby Division I-AA power Appalachian State via the transfer route in 2004. Neither Orlebar played much for the Deacons, and Daniel had been moved to the offensive line, a position he didn't like. Both players were critical of Wake's strength program on their way out the door.
"They just did some things that I don't think fit me," Daniel Orlebar said. "In the weight room, I didn't feel like I was getting any stronger."
Both brothers are part of the defensive tackle rotation at ASU this fall. Arthur, a senior, had 11 tackles during the Mountaineers' 4-2 start. Daniel, a junior, had six.
Points: 150 (6.8 per)
All-League Selections/Candidates: 2
Starters: 12% 54.5
Second Team: 2% Contributors 63.6
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 3
NC OL Dustin Abercrombie Left Team 2003
NC LB James Adams Career Reserve
OH LB Bryan Andrews Second Team (DE)
KY RB Chris Barclay* Three-Year Starter
Fla. OL Wesley Bryant! Starter
NJ OL Dan Callahan Career Reserve (TE)
FL WR Chris Davis* Starter
GA LB Pierre Easley# Two-Year Starter
NC DB Josh Gattis Two-Year Starter
TN LB Patrick Ghee Two-Year Starter (DB)
TN WR Willie Idlette Second Team
KY OL Arby Jones Two-Year Starter
NJ FB Damon McWhite Starter
VA QB Nate Morton Two-Year Starter (WR)
MD DT Daniel Orlebar Transfer/ASU
CA P Ryan Plackemeier* Four-Year Starter
NC DT Jamil Smith Career Reserve
GA DB Riley Swanson Starter
MD WR Napolean Sykes Career Reserve (LB)
OK QB Zac Taylor Transfer/Nebraska
NJ DE Jyles Tucker Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
OH OL Steve Vallos Three-Year Starter
^ - 2002 walk-on ! - I-A transfer # - injured
* - never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall
BOSTON COLLEGE: STABILITY LURED SOLID BUNCH
CHESTNUT HILL -- There was something different about the Class of 2002 at Boston College.
"Will Blackmon and Jim Unis are the two top players in our area," BC coach Tom O'Brien said on signing day, "and we were able to get them to come to Boston College."
Blackmon, from Cranston, R.I., and Unis, from Gloucester, Mass., led an athletic group of 18 signees that at the time was seen as BC's best in years. The Eagles even landed in the top 25 of some national analysts, a rarity for the program.
"This is the Eagles' best class in 20 years,"
ESPN.com's Tom Lemming said in 2002, "led by two of the nation's most underrated players, Jim Unis and William Blackmon."
Mike Farrell, a recruiting guru for the Rivals.com and BC-oriented EagleAction.com websites, said he was impressed with the Eagles' 2002 haul at the time and remains so today.
"The 2002 recruiting class for Boston College was a small group, so it wasn't as highly ranked as some others, but the players in the class combined with Tom O'Brien's impressive 2001 haul to make up the foundation of the current team," Farrell said. "In (2001), BC beat the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Miami, Penn State, Virginia and others in head-to-head battles. This was the second year in a row that BC competed and won battles against traditional football powers under O'Brien."
O'Brien said he believes winning on the field led to more victories on the recruiting trail. Hired in 1997 to straighten out a proud program that had been hit with an embarrassing gambling scandal and back-to-back losing seasons, he led BC to 4-7 marks in his first two years. By the time the program's 2002 signing class arrived, the Eagles had posted consecutive records of 8-4, 7-5 and 8-4.
"Everybody loves to win, and we were just starting to win consistently," O'Brien said. "By that point, we didn't have to explain (to recruits) how we were making progress. Everyone could see that we were headed in the right direction."
BC definitely scored big in New England in 2002, with Blackmon, Unis and receivers Tony Gonzalez and Taylor Sele among the list of locals from a region that's never loaded with Division I-A prospects. The Eagles also landed an in-state tailback named Jeff Ross, a career reserve who now goes by the name J. Survival Ross.
Gonzalez was a three-year starter at quarterback at in-state Framingham High. He played the 2001 season at nearby Worcester Academy, then enrolled at BC in January 2002. Sele, a SuperPrep All-American, arrived via in-state Lawrence Academy with a reputation as one of the fastest prospects in the nation. Both players are important members of a deep and productive BC receiving corps this fall.
"(BC) also had three commits playing in the (2002) U.S. Army All-American Bowl," Farrell said, "something they haven't matched since."
There's a funny story about that high school all-star game. That was where Unis, sought by Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State, Texas A&M, Syracuse and many others, announced that he would be going to BC.
"I was actually there when he announced his commitment," Blackmon said. "I hadn't announced yet. He was on me aggressively. He was on me, saying if I signed as well we could start something special here. He kept preaching. When Ricky (Brown) and Al (Washington) signed, he kept preaching that we can start a dynasty starting this year. We're fairly young, but we can actually go somewhere."
Unis' sales pitch paid off. Blackmon was coming. So was fellow all-star Shadu Moore, an offensive lineman from New Jersey.
"This is what I consider a very exciting class that has signed today," O'Brien said in 2002. "It's a class that our fans will get a lot of enjoyment from -- from top to bottom, there's a lot of good quality in this class. In recruiting, you're happy to get a 30-40 percent (success rate), and I think there will be a higher return. There are a lot of guys here who will have the opportunity to play at Boston College."
O'Brien was right. In fact, 10 of the team's 2002 signees were on the two-deep for its recent win over Wake Forest, while an 11th, defensive tackle Washington, was injured.
Of the 18-player class, which has never missed the postseason nor lost a bowl game, 17 have played a down at BC. The other, Canadian offensive lineman Jeremy Simpson, was lost before he started because of a neck injury.
Strangely, of the three players at that all-star game in Texas, only Blackmon went on to make a significant impact -- on the field, anyway -- at The Heights. Unis was lost after his freshman year because of a persistent problem with concussions. Moore, at least so far, has been a little-used backup.
Blackmon, who also was sought by Notre Dame, Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Syracuse, was a defensive back and return man for the Eagles during his first three years. He is the Big East's all-time leader in kick return yardage, for both a single season and a career. This year, he has shifted to wide receiver, while also playing in the nickel package on defense and returning kicks and punts. His numbers have been down so far in 2005, in terms of pass catches, but his presence on the offensive side causes other teams to pay attention to him and leave others in single coverage.
Unis, a real talent, played as a true freshman, recording 15 tackles, including two sacks, but he never got on the field again. It later was learned that concussions had been a problem for him in high school (colleges can't check a kid's medical records), and he'd just had one too many after getting hurt again while at BC. He was projected as an NFL player down the road. That fact often has left BC fans wondering what might have been, with Unis theoretically on one side of the defensive line and All-American Mathias Kiwanuka on the other over the past three seasons.
Like Simpson, Unis remained in school at BC even after his playing days ended. His teammates said he has been a positive presence despite being away from the game.
"He was actually the leader of the class," Blackmon said. "He still shows his face and still talks to us and still boosts us up. I bought into (Unis' recruiting pitch), and so far things are going pretty well. ... The thing with Jim is even though he's not playing football -- and we talk about this in the locker room all the time -- just the type of person he is, he's going to be somebody important. We're not too worried about him."
Fellow 2002 signee Josh Beekman, who figures to join BC's parade of offensive linemen into the NFL when he's done after next season, said Unis' career-ending medical condition provided an important learning experience for everyone on the team.
"Unis' presence is really much-felt," Beekman said. "When he went down early, everybody really reflected: If that was your last play or your last game or your last practice, what would you do? A lot of people still reflect on Jim and his injury. He was one of the guys who got the freshmen together, organizing things, meetings, etc. (Now) we look at it like Jim can help us out just in spirit."
Simpson also remains a part of the family. He shares dorm space with current BC players Gonzalez, Kevin Challenger and Ryan Glasper.
The other guys have helped a lot more on the field. As a whole, the class has been solid, despite not getting a lot out of three of its five top-rated signees. Blackmon was at the top of most rankings, followed by Unis, Simpson, Beekman and Moore. Blackmon and Beekman have worked out fine, and perhaps there's still time for Moore.
Another interesting part of the 2002 list is at wide receiver. While seniors Blackmon and Larry Lester -- both former defensive backs -- are the starters on this year's team, Gonzalez, Sele and Jason Lilly all are productive redshirt juniors who can look forward to even more significant roles in 2006.
Gonzalez, a two-sport athlete who picked BC over the Boston Red Sox, had developed a reputation for catching only big passes, but he recently blossomed with a huge game against Wake Forest. He had six catches for 104 yards against the Demon Deacons, including a 38-yard TD that started the Eagles' late comeback.
Brown, a starting linebacker, is regarded as the hardest hitter on the BC defense. Safety Larry Anam has started for most of this season. Paddy Lynch got the start at fullback against Wake, as did Jake Ottolini (at defensive end) with Kiwanuka hurt.
Back on the day this class was announced, the well-spoken Unis said: "I'm really psyched about this class, because we have some talent and we have some notoriety on it. We'll have highly rated and talented guys who will be able to bring more talented players to BC."
Things didn't work out exactly as expected at BC -- they never do, at any school -- but through the Wake Forest game, the Class of 2002 had been part of a 32-13 record and three bowl wins in three tries.
Said Blackmon: "We've done well."
-- Mike Shalin, ACCSports.com
Points: 105 (5.8 per)
All-League Selections/Candidates: 2
Starters: 6% 33.3
Second Team: 5% Contributors 61.1
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 0
FL DB Larry Anam Starter
NY OL Josh Beekman Two-Year Starter
RI DB Will Blackmon* Three-Year Starter
OH LB Ricky Brown* Two-Year Starter
NJ LB Jeff Burns Career Reserve
PA QB Karim El Nokali Career Reserve
MA WR Tony Gonzalez Second Team
DE WR Jason Lilly Second Team
MI FB Paddy Lynch^ Second Team
IN OL James Marten Two-Year Starter
NJ OL Shadu Moore Career Reserve
NH DE Jake Ottolini Second Team
MA RB Jeff Ross Career Reserve
NY/MA WR Taylor Sele Second Team
CN OL Jeremy Simpson Medical 2002
MA DE Jim Unis Medical 2003
OH DT Al Washington* Two-Year Starter
IL DE Robert Ziminski Career Reserve
^ - 2002 walk-on ! - I-A transfer # - injured
* - never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall
CLEMSON CLASS: FAIRLY PRODUCTIVE
CLEMSON -- Coach Tommy Bowden didn't exactly inspire the orange-clad masses in 2001, his third season at Clemson. After his Tigers played above their heads with six wins in his first year and nine in 2000, Bowden's third campaign offered a 7-5 reality check with humbling losses to Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and South Carolina, plus a trip to the pedestrian Humanitarian Bowl.
That's not the stuff recruiting brochures are made of, and neither is having one of your assistants off the recruiting trail because of NCAA violations. Still, Clemson managed to pull together a class that was considered solid at the time -- generally third or fourth in the ACC, and in or around the top 25 nationally.
More than three and a half years later, the 2002 class wouldn't be accorded the same billing. Nine of its 26 players made little to no impact, and four of its most celebrated signees never stepped foot on campus.
But while this won't go down as the best of Bowden's seven classes, it probably won't go down as the worst, either. It has its share of busts, but it also has a few bargains.
"The guys that are still here," Bowden said, "it sounds like there are a whole bunch of them making pretty good contributions."
Other than prep All-American athlete Justin Miller, a star cornerback and kick returner from Kentucky who left early for the NFL, the star power of the class hasn't materialized.
Jeff Francoeur chose baseball instead of playing safety for the Tigers, and now he's a virtual rock star for the Atlanta Braves. Receiver Tymere Zimmerman didn't have the grades to make it into Clemson on his second try. Academics also kept defensive end Irvin Brisker from wearing orange. Receiver Kelvin Grant, now a redshirt junior, has not delivered to the extent most expected. Receiver Chansi Stuckey is a good, elusive receiver but has yet to become a superstar. Defensive end Brandon Cannon is a career reserve.
Still, Bowden's fourth class has a solid nucleus of players who are either starting or providing decent depth. Nine members of that group were starting for the Tigers at midseason, and 13 were on the two-deep. On the other hand, a player such as punter Cole Chason earns plenty of points for being a three-year starter, but he never has reached even a modest level of distinction during his extensive time on the field.
"When you look at the guys who are starting or are in secondary roles," Bowden said, "it seems like a fairly productive class."
Let's start with the bargains:
Anthony Waters was an undersized linebacker when he arrived at Clemson, and he didn't do much in 2003 after redshirting. All of that changed in 2004, when he began to make an impact as a starter. He filled Leroy Hill's spot in the middle this season and has exceeded expectations, totaling 65 tackles in the first six games.
Reggie Merriweather rushed for 2,580 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at North Augusta (S.C.) High, but he couldn't even get South Carolina's attention because the Gamecocks' staff was consumed with Palmetto State superstar Demetris Summers. Merriweather led the Tigers in rushing in 2004, and he has formed a nice one-two punch at tailback this season with exciting freshman James Davis.
As a 250-pound offensive lineman in Ironton, Ohio, Roman Fry was considered a second-tier prospect in his home state, but he has become the Tigers' most versatile blocker. The redshirt junior took Brandon Pilgrim's starting spot at left guard in the fifth game this fall, and he doesn't appear close to relinquishing it.
Stuckey spurned Tennessee, Florida State and many others in part because Clemson promised him he'd play quarterback. After redshirting in 2002 and backing up Charlie Whitehurst in 2003, he switched to receiver in 2004 and has been a good fit in the Tigers' new offense under coordinator Rob Spence. But he's still a little shy of All-ACC material.
Miller was offered by Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas, all of which wanted him as a receiver. Clemson took a different approach by recruiting him as a cornerback. Miller flourished at that position and as a dynamic returner of kickoffs and punts before leaving early, following the 2004 season. A second-round draft pick, he's a successful return man and a second-team cornerback with the New York Jets this fall.
Right guard Nathan Bennett also has become one of the Tigers' best offensive linemen. If he holds his starting position through 2006, as seems likely, he'll depart as a four-year starter, a rare accomplishment in college football. Center Dustin Fry bided his time behind Tommy Sharpe and figures to be a two-year starter. Redshirt junior Gaines Adams, a starter at "bandit" end, has NFL talent and another year to show it on a consistent basis.
Now for those busts:
Cannon was considered a very promising prospect at end but has missed badly. After redshirting in his first year, he played just 20 snaps as a redshirt freshman and 15 last season. Through six games this year, he made it into games only on special teams.
Brisker played in seven games for Division II Newberry in 2003, but it's not known what he has done since. Had Cannon and Brisker made the impact that was anticipated, they could be helping a defensive line that is particularly thin at end this season.
Receiver Gerald McCloud was heavily recruited but never delivered, redshirting in 2002 and failing to record a reception in 2003 and 2004. He transferred to Division I-AA South Carolina State, where he is making a marginal impact. Through six games with the Bulldogs this fall, he had five catches for 36 yards.
"You know, Charlie Whitehurst wasn't highly recruited," Bowden said. "Some guys are completely opposite. Sometimes the guys get on those recruiting lists and they're hyped up and they're just not productive."
Grant, considered a sure-fire star when he signed, has disappointed more than he has delighted. He had some noteworthy drops in 2004 as a redshirt sophomore, and redshirt freshman Aaron Kelly took his position in August during fall camp. Grant suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October.
Bowden once thought Duane Coleman might be his tailback of the future, but Coleman fizzled after leading the team in rushing in 2003. A broken foot sidelined him for much of 2004, and this season's emergence of Davis forced Coleman into a backup role at cornerback after two games.
Defensive tackle Cory Groover didn't qualify after signing with this class, but he signed again the next year, picking the Tigers over Tennessee. He was a dependable backup last fall but a disappointment through the first half of this (his senior) season.
Bowden was forced to sign some fallbacks after a few highly rated recruits went elsewhere.
Offensive lineman Brad Lee signed after a last-minute offer and was a bust, after angering his coaches by missing classes and workouts. After playing just two snaps as a freshman and spending the summer of 2004 in the doghouse, Lee likely got the hint and transferred to Division I-AA Grambling State. He left there after playing sparingly last season, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Chris Carter, a wide receiver and running back from Kannapolis, N.C., was a marginal prospect who chose Clemson over Western Carolina. He failed to qualify and spent 2002 and 2003 at Hargrave Military Academy. He then reportedly went to Division II Winston-Salem State, but he never played a down there.
Tim DeBeer hasn't started and probably never will. But the redshirt junior is a decent backup to offensive tackle Barry Richardson.
Clemson had high hopes for its three junior college signees in 2002, most notably linebackers Kelvin Morris and Brandon Jamison. The two showed some promise that season as backups but didn't play thereafter because of injuries and academic problems. Both are having excellent seasons this fall for Division II West Georgia. In the team's 5-3 start, Morris had 52 tackles (a team-high 19 for loss) and 5.5 sacks, while Jamison had 34 tackles (12 for loss) and a team-high 6.5 sacks.
"Kelvin was a very talented player, but he just wasn't disciplined on the field or off," Bowden said. "Academics, practice habits ... it's just a shame."
Cornerback Buddy Williams also was considered a talented signee, but he was kicked off the team in December 2003 for violating team rules. He played last season with the Sioux City Bandits of the United Indoor Football League.
Long-time Clemson assistant Rick Stockstill, a recruiting ace who is now at South Carolina, made a big splash in 2002 by signing Will Proctor. Next season, in his final year of eligibility, Proctor likely will be Whitehurst's replacement as the starting quarterback.
Bowden still wonders what might have been, had Zimmerman made it into Clemson on his second try out of Fork Union Military Academy. Zimmerman went to South Carolina State before transferring to Newberry, where the redshirt junior has set a gaggle of receiving records while also starring on the basketball team.
After six games at Newberry this fall, Zimmerman had 45 catches for 472 yards and nine touchdowns. Meanwhile, a lack of depth at receiver forced Clemson to play true freshmen Rendrick Taylor and Tyler Grisham this season.
"I know he's broken all them records there," Bowden said. "He would have been a really good addition to what we're doing now -- a big, strong, physical guy. It would have let us redshirt Tyler and Rendrick."
-- Larry Williams, Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier
Points: 140 (5.4 per)
All-League Selections/Candidates: 2
Starters: 10% 38.5
Second Team: 4% Contributors 53.8
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 8
SC/VA DE Gaines Adams Starter
GA OL Nathan Bennett Three-Year Starter
GA DE Irvin Brisker Non-Qualifier/Newberry
GA DE Brandon Cannon Career Reserve
NC DB Chris Carter Non-Qualifier/WSSU
GA P Cole Chason Three-Year Starter
GA LB Donnell Clark Starter (DT)
FL RB Duane Coleman Second Team (CB)
GA OL Tim DeBeer Second Team
GA DB Jeff Francoeur Pro Baseball
SC OL Dustin Fry Starter
OH OL Roman Fry Starter
SC WR Kelvin Grant# Second Team
SC DT Cory Groover Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
MS JC LB Brandon Jamison Dismissed/West Georgia
MS JC LB Vontrell Jamison Career Reserve (DE)
GA OL Brad Lee Transfer/Grambling
FL WR Gerald McCloud Transfer/S.C. State
SC RB Reggie Merriweather Two-Year Starter
KY DB Justin Miller Three-Year Starter/NFL
MS JC LB Kelvin Morris Dismissed/West Georgia
FL QB Will Proctor Second Team
GA QB Chansi Stuckey Two-Year Starter (WR)
SC LB Anthony Waters Two-Year Starter
FL DB Buddy Williams Dismissed/UIFL
SC/VA WR Ty Zimmerman Non-Qualifier/Newberry
^ - 2002 walk-on ! - I-A transfer # - injured
* - never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall
HEELS REGRET MISSED OPPORTUNITY
CHAPEL HILL -- For many, North Carolina's 2002 recruiting class became forgettable on the day it was signed.
Cornerback A.J. Davis, an All-American from nearby prep power Northern Durham, had committed to the Tar Heels, but he surprised almost everyone -- even his father and his coach -- when he signed with archrival N.C. State. The decision of in-state linebacker A.J. Nicholson, another prep All-American, may have hurt even more. He signed with Florida State, despite growing up as a UNC fan. His father, Darrell, played linebacker for the Heels.
Elsewhere, Ohio linebacker Bobby Carpenter chose Ohio State and became a star. Georgia lineman Marcus McNeill decided on Auburn and went on to a brilliant career.
The two linebackers alone likely would have made an enormous difference for a UNC defense that often has struggled -- sometimes in ugly fashion -- since 2001. As a senior this fall, Nicholson is having an All-ACC campaign for the Seminoles.
When John Bunting moved to UNC from the NFL in December 2000, he delved into Division I-A football for the first time in his coaching career. After the Tar Heels won the Peach Bowl to put on exclamation point on his 8-5 debut in 2001, a strong recruiting haul should have followed. The year before, LSU had to turn recruits away after winning the same bowl game. That class eventually helped the Tigers win a national championship.
Instead of signing a great class, however, Bunting found himself re-inventing the way Carolina went about recruiting.
"After that (2002) class was done," Bunting said, "we totally revamped our system of evaluation and our system of recruiting. We overhauled it. I wasn't very happy with that class."
He said the criticism leveled at Carolina that year was "befitting."
"Personally," he said, "I felt like I was kind of the rookie on the block. I expected a lot from my staff, and a couple of staff members let me down."
Nevertheless, the kids who signed didn't think much about the ones who didn't. They came to Carolina full of hope and eager to play, linebacker Tommy Richardson said.
"When we came in," Richardson said, "we felt like we were a very special group. A lot of us played right away, even though it wasn't significant numbers. We knew we were coming into a situation where they were losing a lot of guys, and a lot of us had opportunities to play. Others didn't play as much as they would like, but Jacoby Watkins, who redshirted, and D.J. Walker, a redshirt guy, they're playing now. It's fun to see."
Of the Tar Heels' 22 signees in February 2002, nine are no longer playing football at Carolina. Ten contribute regularly, and the others remain on the team. Defensive end Melik Brown signed in 2002, but he wound up spending a season in prep school, so he's considered part of the 2003 class.
The remaining players, in rough order of productivity, are offensive guard Kyle Ralph (second-team All-ACC in 2004), Richardson, punter David Wooldridge, wide receiver Derrele Mitchell, Watkins (a cornerback), safety Mahlon Carey, cornerback Cedrick Holt, defensive end Brian Rackley, linebacker Victor Worsley, Walker (a safety), offensive lineman Kendall High and offensive lineman Chris Woods.
"That's a crazy number," Richardson said, when presented with the statistics of his class.
Richardson said some of his classmates could not adjust to the demands of a regime that was changing under Bunting.
"When you bring in a person, you bring in not only that individual, you bring in that family and their past," Richardson said. "A lot of guys who are not here anymore, something in their past or something we saw in them didn't fit this program. In some cases, there were some bad situations that happened. Some guys left on their own. The guys who are still here are doing a great job, the Kyle Ralphs, the David Wooldridges, the Mahlon Careys. It's great to see."
Sometimes it was simply bad luck. Players such as defensive end Xavier Rainey (broken leg), defensive tackle Mickey Rice and defensive back Rashaad Tindall (knee) all gave up football for medical reasons but remain enrolled at UNC.
Five players transferred: defensive end Alden Blizzard (Hampton), offensive lineman Whit Efird (Catawba), wideout Daunte' Fields (N.C. Central), wideout Ian Firestone (Penn State) and wideout Michael Gilmore (Chattanooga). Gilmore was asked to leave, soon after his December 2003 arrest on charges of assaulting his girlfriend.
In his first season at Division I-AA Hampton, Blizzard had 13 tackles and three sacks this fall through seven games. Efird, who suffered a back injury that required surgery while at Division II Catawba, has played there mostly as a reserve. At Division II N.C. Central, where former UNC assistant Rod Broadway is the head coach, Fields had six receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown through eight games this fall. Firestone failed to earn any playing time after going through spring practice at PSU in 2004, then left the team. Gilmore had 10 catches for 85 yards after seven games at Division I-AA Chattanooga this season. In 2004, he set school single-season records for kickoff returns (46) and yardage (1,009).
Richardson said there is a lot more than football to being a player at Carolina. The coaching staff insists that everyone attends class and earns his way in school. They also ask team members to extend themselves beyond campus.
"When you bring in different guys from different cities, different cultures, different backgrounds, you never know what you're going to get," Richardson said. "At North Carolina, not only do you have to be a talented individual, you have to present yourself well when you go out for community service. Some guys don't fit that mold. They weren't able to do all the academics. They weren't able to do all the community service. They weren't able to be out here and run and do all the stuff you have to do to be a great football player.
"We're trying to put in a different culture, a different foundation, and sometimes there is rebellion. You see what happened with Steve Spurrier (at South Carolina). When he got in there, he laid a bunch of guys off, a bunch of guys were not with his program. It happens a lot."
There was no middle ground when Bunting arrived. Guys either conformed or were jettisoned.
"Obviously, the people who didn't want to adjust to (Bunting's) way are no longer here," Carey said. "That's the way it's going to be. It's all about the right fit."
Carey said the main reason he stayed at UNC through three position changes (tailback-linebacker-safety), the ugly records (5-19 in 2002-03) and the general turmoil was that he picked the right school from the start.
"It's just a learning experience," Carey said. "In life, things aren't always going to go your way. But one thing about me when I got recruited, I knew this was the place for me. This was where I wanted to be."
Bunting lived through a similar experience in the NFL. When Dick Vermeil took over at Philadelphia, Bunting watched many of his teammates gradually leave, until only nine of the original group remained when the Eagles went to their first Super Bowl in 1980. So Bunting knew when he returned to his alma mater that there would be a price paid for instituting discipline.
"That's a big part of it," Bunting said. "We've been trying to change that culture. You've got to make all your classes. You've got to be disciplined in everything you do here in this program. You've got to make some sacrifices."
Nevertheless, as former UNC coach Bill Dooley (Bunting's mentor) often said, one key to a successful program is retention.
"It's not enough to recruit them," Dooley said. "You've got to retain them."
So there is no doubt that getting significant contributions out of 10 players from a 22-man class is not nearly enough. A pair of 2002 walk-ons, plus transfers Chad Scott (Kentucky) and Rikki Cook (Rutgers), helped minimize the overall damage.
"If you sign a class of between 20 and 25," Bunting said, "you want to have between 15 and 20 of those guys helping you by the time they're juniors."
Today, the recruiting process starts earlier for the Tar Heels. They find the kids they want and go to work on them quicker. Bunting said his summer camp has become an important part of the process, because getting the kids on campus means he and his staff can develop a far greater depth of understanding for each young man.
"It's even more important to get kids with great character," Bunting said. "That's why the camps are so important, because we get them on campus. We get to see them. We get to spend time with them."
The kids who remain from the Class of 2002, including contributing walk-ons Justin Phillips (tight end) and Wallace Wright (wideout), have shown tremendous character. They take pride in their tenacity and their contribution. They know that they have paid their dues, literally in blood, sweat and tears.
"We're pretty tight-knit," Carey said. "We've been through a lot together. We have left the hard work, the rough times, the keep-fighting mentality (as a legacy). I think that is one thing the young guys look up to us for, because we have been through some rough times, and we're still fighting."
You can be sure their coach will never forget them.
"I love those kids," Bunting said. "Those kids have been through some stuff. They really have. They've been put through an awful lot of bad-to-worse times. They'll forever be able to take that with them in whatever they pursue, and they'll be stronger because of it.
"They've all worked hard, and they've all made improvement. I think it has rubbed off. They've been good examples for our other kids."
-- Eddy Landreth, Chapel Hill (N.C.) News
THE TAR HEELS
Points: 130 (5.0 per)
All-League Selections/Candidates: 1
Starters: 11% 42.3
Second Team: 2% Contributors 50.0
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 6
MD DE Alden Blizzard Transfer/Hampton
NJ LB Melik Brown Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
NJ TE Lewis Burnham Left Team 2004
GA RB Mahlon Carey* Two-Year Starter (DB)
Rut. FB Rikki Cook! Starter
NC OL Whit Efird Transfer/Catawba
FL WR Daunte Fields Transfer/N.C. Central
PA WR Ian Firestone Transfer/Penn State
SC WR Michael Gilmore Dismissed/Chattanooga
NC DT Kendall High Career Reserve (OT)
NC DB Cedrick Holt* Two-Year Starter
VA WR Derrele Mitchell* Three-Year Starter
NC TE Justin Phillips^* Second Team
FL DE Brian Rackley Two-Year Starter
GA DE Xavier Rainey Medical 2005
OH OL Kyle Ralph* Two-Year Starter
SC DT Mickey Rice Medical 2004
FL DB Tommy Richardson* Two-Year Starter (LB)
Ky. RB Chad Scott! Starter 2004
NC DB Rashaad Tindall Medical 2004
NC RB D.J Walker Career Reserve (DB)
NC DB Jacoby Watkins# Two-Year Starter
SC OL Chris Woods Career Reserve
NC P David Wooldridge Two-Year Starter
NC LB Victor Worsley Starter
NC WR Wallace Wright^* Second Team
^ - 2002 walk-on ! - I-A transfer # - injured
* - never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall
GAILEY TRANSITION LEFT HUGE HOLE
ATLANTA -- Think of the worst-case scenario for compiling a recruiting class: coaching change, heavy staff turnover, a touch of scandal, poor timing. Then throw in a few more bad turns: a short recruiting window, more scandal and a recruiting coordinator interviewing for other jobs.
That was pretty much the situation facing Georgia Tech in February 2002. Not surprisingly, the 15-man class Tech signed has been a dismal failure, one of the worst groups on record in the 10 years the ACC Sports Journal has been conducting its annual study of four-years-later recruiting results.
The group was filled with academic and injury problems from the beginning. Nine of the signees are no longer in the program, and just two (safety Chris Reis, tight end Michael Matthews) are starting for the Yellow Jackets this fall. Of the other four players still on the roster -- tight end George Cooper, fullback Ajenavi Eziemefe, wideout Xavier McGuire and kicker David Jordan -- only Cooper and Eziemefe have made even minor contributions.
That the Jackets have had three consecutive winning seasons with this bunch is a testament to the classes that surrounded it.
So, just how did Tech end up with such a disaster?
First, head coach George O'Leary, who had guided the Yellow Jackets to five consecutive winning seasons, left Tech for Notre Dame, his dream job. O'Leary planned on taking several assistant coaches with him to South Bend, but before he got the chance reports circulated that O'Leary had lied on his résumé. He ultimately was forced to resign, and the entire situation cast a negative light on Tech, which had never noticed the discrepancies on the coach's résumé.
Still, there was some time to rebound. After a secretive search, Tech athletic director Dave Braine settled on Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey as his choice to replace O'Leary. Gailey, a respected NFL assistant and former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, had not been a college coach since 1993, when he spent one season at Samford.
In a move that was criticized by some at the time, Gailey opted to remain with the Dolphins until the end of their season. However, unlike the situation of first-year Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who was able to parlay staying with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots into some recruiting gold for the Fighting Irish last winter, Gailey's stay in Miami did nothing to help Tech's cause.
The circumstances only delayed Gailey's assembly of a staff and limited how much recruiting he could do. The Dolphins' season ended with a playoff loss to Baltimore on Jan. 13, about three weeks before national signing day.
"When you're talking about a long-term relationship, what's an extra two, three, four weeks?" Gailey said when he was hired. "It's not the best situation, but we'll make it work."
Gailey kept just two assistants from O'Leary's staff: Glenn Spencer and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. He did not retain David Kelly or Lance Thompson, two of O'Leary's top recruiters. Kelly, in particular, had been instrumental in luring top-notch talent from Louisiana to Atlanta for the Yellow Jackets.
Making matters worse, O'Brien was interviewing to be the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator during much of this sensitive period. He withdrew his name just days before signing day.
As if all of that was not enough to scare off potential recruits, two of Gailey's new assistants, wide receivers coach Tommie Robinson and defensive coordinator Rick Smith, had resume issues of their own. On Feb. 2, Smith had to resign because of the problems. Robinson was allowed to keep his job, but Tech's already-tarnished image took another hit.
"Any time you have negative publicity, it affects the decisions of 17- and 18-year-olds," Gailey said. "I don't see how recruiting could be any more difficult."
The off-the-field trouble led to the Yellow Jackets' small class -- just 15 in all, even after a few late additions -- although Tech did not have enough available scholarships for a full 25-man class anyway. As has been a constant for Gailey in recruiting, the class focused on defense, particularly along the line and in the secondary.
Tech signed three defensive linemen: Terron Pullen, Brad Brezina and Michael Matthews. Each serves as an example of what happened to multiple members of the class.
Pullen never suited up for the Yellow Jackets. He redshirted in 2002, then emerged in the spring of 2003 as a key member of the tackle rotation. But Pullen, like three other members of the class, was kicked out of school after the 2003 spring semester. In all, 10 players failed out of school that spring, including stars Tony Hollings and Anthony Hargrove.
Pullen, the Class A defensive player of the year in Georgia as a high school senior, tried unsuccessfully to transfer to Division I-AA Georgia Southern and continue his football career. He now is employed as a construction worker near his home in Johnson County.
Wide receiver LeKeldrick Bridges was another academic casualty. He played in nine games as a freshman, catching 11 passes for 198 yards and one touchdown and showcasing some big-play potential. He transferred to Hinds (Miss.) Community College, where he played in 2004. Bridges is listed on the 2005 roster at Division I-AA Grambling State, but he did not record any statistics in the Tigers' first six games this fall.
Recruited as a strong safety, Kingi McNair quickly moved to linebacker with the Yellow Jackets. He redshirted as a freshman, failed out of school, then said he had lost his love for the game. After turning down a chance to play at Hinds with Bridges, McNair now works as a machine operator.
"Three years ago, you couldn't pay me to say that I lost the love for the game, but I did," McNair told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this fall. "There was too much pressure, too stressful. It wasn't fun anymore. It was too much of a business."
Running back Michael Sampson played in four games as a freshman, rushing 13 times for 38 yards after injuries took a toll on the Jackets' backfield in 2002. Sampson, who failed out of school that spring, was back on the Tech roster for the spring of 2004, but he did not make it to the fall semester. Sampson transferred to Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, but he was dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons.
Brezina, the son of former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Greg Brezina, battled through position changes and injuries, including foot surgery, to earn the Yellow Jackets' starting left guard spot in 2004. After he suffered a neck injury in the third game of the season, doctors discovered a narrowing of his spinal column, a condition that forced him to retire from the sport. Brezina remains enrolled at Tech.
Injuries also caught up with Eddie Lee Ivery Jr., the son of former Tech great Eddie Lee Ivery. The younger Ivery suffered three knee injuries while with the Yellow Jackets, the last one during the 2004 season. Like Brezina, he remains enrolled at Tech. Under NCAA rules for medical hardships, the players are able to continue to use their athletic grants without counting toward the team's 85-scholarship limit.
The Yellow Jackets also suffered some defections. Offensive lineman Zeb McHargue left school after spring practice in 2003. His name often got lumped in with those who failed out, but McHargue said he simply quit the team. Defensive back Venice Gilliam, another late addition in 2002, played in every game as a freshman and four as a sophomore, then left the program. The Tallahassee native was listed on some 2005 Florida A&M rosters, but he has not appeared in a game this fall.
I-Perfection Harris arrived at Tech as a celebrity because of his unique name, but the track standout did little on the field to back it up. Harris, who placed fifth in the 2003 ACC Championships in the long jump, was on the football team's roster in 2004, but he did not appear in a game and did not return for spring practice in 2005. He is not enrolled at Tech.
That's nine of 15 signees who are no longer with the program, a horrible attrition rate by any standard, but especially Tech's. Even the few who remained are a mixed bag.
Kicker David Jordan twice lost the kickoff specialist job, including after one half in the season opener this year. He has never attempted a field goal at Tech and likely never will.
Wide receiver Xavier McGuire rarely has been healthy enough to take the field, and when he has been 100 percent he simply hasn't been good enough to get on it. McGuire has four career receptions, all from 2003. At 6-4, he was the first tall receiver Gailey landed, a sign of things to come. McGuire chose Tech over Alabama, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
Cooper, the team's backup tight end, is seeing the first extended action of his career this season. He signed with Tech over Ohio State and Tennessee in 2002, but he just caught his first career pass this fall.
Eziemefe looked like a star in the making in his second career game. Against North Carolina in 2002, he rushed for 136 yards and one touchdown on 32 carries. Since then, the converted tailback hasn't carried more than 11 times in a game or rushed for more than 47 yards. He played a little fullback and tailback in 2003 and 2004 but now is used exclusively at fullback and on special teams.
Matthews was among the most promising prospects, a tough defensive lineman from Cincinnati. His fiery play at defensive end, then fullback and finally tight end made him the center of most practice fights. But he's settled down into a productive player this season. Matthews, a very well-spoken young man, is the team's starting tight end.
It wouldn't take much to be the shining star of this bunch, but safety Chris Reis would stand out in most recruiting classes. A permanent team captain for 2005, he is in his second season as a starter. He played outside linebacker last season, earning honorable mention All-ACC recognition. A smart, heady player, Reis earned playing time as a freshman on special teams and is among the program's most versatile players. He has missed just one game in his career, after being knocked unconscious by Florida State linebacker Ernie Sims in 2003. Coming out of high school, Reis chose Tech over Auburn, Duke and Northwestern.
With a few more players like Reis, the Yellow Jackets' 2002 class would not be such a mess, Tech wouldn't have such a big hole in the middle of its program, and Gailey might not be fighting for his job.
That's recruiting for you.
THE YELLOW JACKETS
Points: 40 (2.7 per)
All-League Selections/Candidates: 1
Starters: 2% 13.3
Second Team: 2% Contributors 26.7
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 7
GA DT Brad Brezina Medical 2004
TX WR LeKeldrick Bridges Dismissed/Grambling
OH TE George Cooper Second Team
LA FB Ajenavi Eziemefe* Second Team
FL DB Venice Gilliam Transfer/Florida A&M
NY DB I-Perfection Harris Left Team 2004
FL RB Eddie Lee Ivery Medical 2004
GA PK David Jordan Career Reserve
OH TE Michael Matthews Starter
TX WR Xavier McGuire Career Reserve
MS DB Kingi McNair Dismissed 2003
GA OL Zeb McHargue Left Team 2003
GA DT Terron Pullen Dismissed 2003
GA DB Chris Reis* Two-Year Starter
TX RB Michael Sampson Dismissed 2003
^ - 2002 walk-on ! - I-A transfer # - injured
* - never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall