CHAPEL HILL – Though coach Larry Fedora said that North Carolina’s recruiting base is the Eastern seaboard from Florida to New Jersey, the Tar Heels found most of their 2014 recruiting class in three places – Charlotte, Cobb County, Ga., and Northern Virginia, which accounted for 13 of their 22 signees.
It was rare to see such a concentration of Tar Heels from those areas – the Class of 2013 had three (all from Charlotte). But Fedora said it was because some top players committed early and then went about recruiting their neighbors.
“When you get into a recruiting class, you don’t want to be the only player that’s a good player that you come in with,” Fedora said. “So you want to surround yourself with great players, that’s the only way you’re going to be successful. So those guys did a good job, when they knew who we were going after, they went after them also.”
That chain reaction worked especially well for UNC in Charlotte, where defensive end Robert Dinkins was the first to commit (June 2012) and the Tar Heels picked up their top two recruits, U.S. Army High School All-Americans Elijah Hood and Bentley Spain.
Besides helping to attract other recruits, wrapping up some of the top players early had another benefit – they made multiple visits to campus, 15 to 20 times in the case of Dinkins, and they got to know multiple members of the staff.
That helped when UNC lost three of its five offensive coaches in the past two months – offensive coordinator Blake Anderson and recruiting coordinator Walt Bell to Arkansas State, and running backs coach Randy Jordan to the Washington Redskins.
Only one of those coaches had been replaced by signing day – former Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell is the new play-caller – but the only commitment to back out during that period was on the defensive side (Fort Myers, Fla., cornerback Tajze Battle).
“It was a lot easier than I thought, and a lot of the reason was we had those guys committed for such a long time, they considered themselves Tar Heels,” Fedora said. “They weren’t tied to a coach, they were tied to the university.”
Sure enough, though Fedora praised the Class of 2014 for its speed, athleticism, academic achievement and character, he said that “the best thing about the entire class is that all but two were locked in before July.”
Those final two were receiver Devin Perry of Memphis, Tenn., and tackle Jared Cohen of Owings Mills, Md., who both committed in January. Cohen became a focus after junior center Russell Bodine decided to go pro, which caught the coaching staff by surprise and forced them to go after another interior lineman late in the recruiting process.
Cohen (6-4, 295) and Jacksonville, Fla., native Josh Allen (6-3, 285) give the team two big bodies who can play guard or center. UNC also signed two edge linemen with long wingspans in Spain (6-6, 285) and Caleb Samuel (6-6, 260).
Fedora has typically recruited at least three wide receivers a year, and Perry gave the Tar Heels a trio of wideouts again this time.
Perry (6-2, 185), Austin Proehl (5-10, 175) and Josh Cabrera (6-3, 190) all attended Fedora’s Freak Show camp, so Fedora joked that he knew each one’s “legitimate speed.” Just as importantly, it gave the coaching staff a look at their makeup, and they were most impressed with Proehl’s competitiveness.
Incidentally, while the three came to the Freak Show together, they didn’t take their official visits together because Proehl was at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii with his father, former NFL veteran and current Carolina Panthers assistant coach Ricky Proehl.
Unlike Bodine, the UNC coaches knew well in advance that Eric Ebron would be leaving after 2013, so they signed two tight ends in this class – Brandon Fritts (6-4, 215), a former teammate of freshman quarterback Mitch Trubisky in Ohio, and Raleigh native Avery Edwards (6-5, 230).
For the second straight year, UNC got the best running back in the state, snagging Hood (6-0, 220) after he decided against going to Notre Dame. Fedora also makes sure he gets one quarterback each year, and got a highly touted one this time in Caleb Henderson (6-3, 220), a pocket passer who was named The Washington Post’s all-Met player of the year.
The 10 defensive signees include four defensive backs, four linebackers and three linemen.
Three of the four defensive backs are safeties that came out of Georgia’s Cobb County –Cameron Albright (6-2, 210), Ayden Bonilla (6-2, 200) and Allen Artis (6-1, 190), whose father Johnny played football at Wake Forest with UNC receivers coach Gunter Brewer. Besides their shared county, Fedora said the safeties are alike in other respects.
“They’re all big guys that can lay the wood to you but also can cover,” Fedora said.
They will be joined in the secondary by physical cornerback M.J. Stewart (5-11, 190).
Defense Front Needs Help
Perhaps the most obvious need for UNC last season was at linebacker – walk-on Jeff Schoettmer filled in during the season, but when he was limited for the Belk Bowl, safety Tre Boston was needed to play the position against Cincinnati. UNC’s other starting linebacker, Travis Hughes, is currently suspended from team activities after his arrest last month. Malik Carney (6-2, 210), Cayson Collins (6-1, 215) and Tyrell Tomlin (6-0, 220) are the three incoming freshmen who will attempt to contribute right away.
The defensive line, the source of so many future pros in the Butch Davis era, will lose seniors Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. Hoping to keep the pipeline to the NFL going are Dinkins (6-2, 235), an end, and interior linemen Jeremiah Clarke (6-5, 275) and Tyler Powell (6-4, 255).
On special teams, UNC picked up kicker Freeman Jones, who should challenge returning starter Thomas Moore. Moore was 14 of 19 overall on field goals last season, but he was 1 for 5 on kicks of 40 or more yards.
The defense doesn’t appear to have a prospect on the level of Hood, Spain or Henderson, which could be worrisome for a unit that has often fallen behind the offense during Fedora’s tenure.
But the team’s biggest concern across the board has been depth, and the lifting of the NCAA scholarship sanctions, starting with the Class of 2015, should help in that respect.
Incidentally, while Fedora’s recruiting footprint includes more than enough talent, he said there was one position where he will look anywhere in the country: quarterback. When the staff got Trubisky out of Ohio, he was the first Tar Heel to sign from the Midwest since tackle James Hurst in 2010.