CHAPEL HILL – Larry Fedora did something in recruiting this past summer that he’d never done before – offer a scholarship to a high school freshman.
The plan worked when 5-10, 195-pound running back Antonio Williams of New London, N.C., committed to UNC on Sept. 16.
Speaking in general terms on his weekly radio show – NCAA rules forbid coaches from mentioning specific recruits before they sign - Fedora said it was a difficult decision to offer a spot to a 14-year-old, when his size and ability could change in the next few years.
But Williams already had offers from major programs, including N.C. State, Clemson, South Carolina and Georgia (who had already poached Old North State backs Todd Gurley from Tarboro and Keith Marshall from Raleigh), and Fedora said he didn’t want to miss out because of indecision.
“That kid develops into a great player and he’s from your home state and everyone is saying, ‘Why isn’t he interested in you?’ and the kid’s saying, ‘Y’all didn’t offer me when everyone else offered me,’” Fedora said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. You’ve got to do a great job of evaluating. That’s hard to do when they’re 14-year-old kids.”
Four coaches are involved in evaluating each prospect at UNC – the area coach, the position coach, the coordinator and Fedora, who says the buck ultimately stops with him.
To make that process easier, Fedora said he makes sure his staff spends as much time as NCAA rules allow speaking with high school coaches. Fedora builds relationships by opening his practices and facilities, including meeting rooms and film rooms, to any high school coach who wants to come to UNC.
As far as recruiting in-state prospects, a major point of emphasis under the current staff, each of the nine coaches has a specific area of the state he is responsible for.
“You have to pick and choose wisely,” Fedora said. “Then you have to do a great job of building relationships with them and convincing them they can reach every dream and goal right here at Carolina.”
It’s also about finding players who fit his system. Fedora’s always on the lookout for hybrid players like bandits and rams, who might not fit as easily in other major programs. Alternatively he’s not as interested in blocking tight ends, or a traditional 6-6 pocket passer with a great arm but no mobility.
The Tar Heels have finalized almost their entire 2014 class – 22 players had verbally pledged as of Sept. 22 – though they’re still holding out hope for some of the top recruits who are still undecided. Ideally, Fedora said he wants to have the class for next year complete the day after signing day.
“We’re pretty much done, actually,” Fedora said. “We could take a couple of more guys to squeeze in, but we’re in pretty good shape there. There are just a few guys we’re working on right now for that 2014 class. Now we’re spending time on the ’15 and ’16 class.”
The ’15 class has one commit, Tallahassee, Fla., cornerback Ronnie Harrison. That’s now as many as the ’16 class, thanks to Williams.
The North Stanly High back had 1,412 yards and 16 touchdowns on 261 carries and 237 yards on 14 receptions last season, according to the Fayetteville Observer. Alternatively, he had 1,516 yards and 17 touchdowns, according to Scout.com. Either way, that proves two things – high school statistics are comically inaccurate and Williams ran for a lot of yards.
Running back has been an especially fruitful position so far for Fedora, especially in-state ones.
UNC has gotten commitments from two players who were considered the top running backs in the state from their class – current freshman T.J. Logan of Greensboro and Charlotte senior Elijah Hood, who switched his commitment from Notre Dame in August. Current freshman Khris Francis of Durham also came aboard.
Surely the success of Giovani Bernard in Fedora’s offense didn’t go unnoticed. Williams isn’t in the Bernard mode – he’s more of a bruiser – but Fedora said he was looking for variety in the types of running backs he recruits.
“One thing we’re always looking for is speed,” Fedora said during the preseason. “But we’re also looking for production; we’re looking for a guy that can catch the ball, because that’s a big part of what we do with our running backs. They have to be able to catch the football in our offense.
“Some of those guys that are playing in the “I” or you turn around and handing it to the iso or the power or you’re tossing it to him on the sweep don’t always necessarily have the hands that we’re looking for in what we do.”
Now Fedora must hope that Williams develops the hands and versatility he’s looking for. Even if Williams doesn’t change his mind, it will still be three years between the time he committed and the time he steps on the field at Carolina. A lot can happen between now and then, for both the player and the current coaching staff.
“It’s getting to be very difficult,” Fedora acknowledged. “Because you are getting pressed to make decisions on kids a lot quicker.”
Coastal Hopes Dinged
Winning the Coastal Division (officially, this time) has been a major goal for UNC this season. The chance of achieving it went way down with Carolina’s 28-20 loss in Atlanta, where it hasn’t won since 1997.
Certainly a loss to Georgia Tech didn’t stop UNC from finishing atop the division last season, but that’s because it beat Virginia Tech and Miami and got fortunate with the tiebreakers. It certainly seems a sweep of the Hokies and Hurricanes is necessary again.
Fedora called the Georgia Tech loss “disappointing, but not discouraging,” since all the mistakes are preventable. “We can play better, we can coach better. … We have to do that, and we have to get better in a hurry.”
UNC’s next two ACC games are at Virginia Tech and a Thursday night home game against Miami. Win those, and the Tar Heels are still in great shape, considering Georgia Tech must still face Clemson and Miami plays Florida State, while UNC’s toughest remaining opponent is … at N.C. State? At Pitt?
So the loss in Atlanta wasn’t crushing. But it did take away UNC’s margin for error.