June 10, 2002 CHAPEL HILL Many North Carolina football fans were unhappy and perhaps alarmed recently, after one of the major preseason college annuals arrived on newsstands and projected an eighth-place finish for the 2002 Tar Heels.
Only in a Mack Brown rebuilding season (1989) and the disastrous campaign of 1999 a product of roster holes left by Brown, the horrendous planning/coaching of Carl Torbush and some terrible luck with injuries has a North Carolina football team finished that low in the last 23 years. Torbush left behind some significant holes, too, but no objective party ever had viewed them in the context of such a potential disaster scenario for second-year coach John Bunting until now.
The surface explanation for the prognosticators' skepticism is well-known and generally accurate. While UNC impressed the college football world in Bunting's rookie season with an 8-4 record and a dominating defensive performance in a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, many of the building blocks from that solid team have departed. Gone from the offense are the starting quarterback, two starting receivers and two starting offensive linemen. Gone from the defense clearly the foundation of last year's success are, well, just about everyone, including creative coordinator Jon Tenuta.
A closer look shows that the Tar Heels' recruiting efforts under Brown/Torbush in 1998 and Torbush in 1999, coupled with depth problems that caused many promising prospects to be thrust into action without the benefit of a redshirt year, have left Bunting with a potentially hole-filled 2002 roster.
UNC's 1998 class, for example, generated only four players who will be contributing fifth-year seniors this fall: receiver Chesley Borders, safety DeFonte Coleman, defensive tackle Eric Davis and tight end Zach Hilton. Of the others in the 21-man group of signees, one (Julius Peppers) turned pro as a redshirt junior, one transferred, two never gained admission, three were dismissed, three retired with medical problems, three became career reserves who gave up football with remaining eligibility, and four (Ronald Curry, Adam Metts, juco Sherrod Peace and Ryan Sims) exhausted their eligibility.
Of Torbush's 23 signees in the Class of 1999, meanwhile, only 14 remain on the active roster. On the other hand, there is some good news for UNC fans. Of those 14 returning seniors and redshirt juniors, at least eight are projected starters: wideout Sam Aiken, cornerback Kevin Knight, defensive end Isaac Mooring, safety Dexter Reid, linebacker Malcolm Stewart, guard Jeb Terry, cornerback Michael Waddell and guard Jupiter Wilson. Aiken, Reid and Waddell already have established themselves as legitimate All-ACC candidates, and the staff has very high hopes for Mooring and Stewart.
Everyone knows that Maryland shocked the world last season with the coaching genius of Ralph Friedgen, but far fewer understand that the Terps did it with a lineup loaded with experienced Ron Vanderlinden signees who played very well last fall as fourth-year juniors, fourth-year seniors, fifth-year seniors and an invaluable juco transfer (QB Sean Hill).
Bunting will have no such luxury this fall, and he knows it. Since taking over at a school that traditionally has avoided accepting many transfers, of both the major college and juco variety, the coach and his staff have investigated both supply lines thoroughly. When there are holes in the road, they're filled with gravel and asphalt. When there are holes in a football program, they're often filled with jucos and other transfers.
Eligible at UNC for the first time this season are four Bunting-era transfers: tight end Bobby Blizzard (Kentucky), placekicker Dan Orner (Michigan State), defensive tackle Carl Smalls (South Carolina) and quarterback C.J. Stephens (Florida). Already in the fold but not eligible until 2003 are running back Rikki Cook (Rutgers) and tailback Chad Scott (Kentucky). Tellingly, Blizzard, Orner, Smalls and Stephens all have legitimate chances to earn starting positions this fall, although second-team roles appear just as likely at this point in all four cases.
Rules Make Juco Route Difficult
The Tar Heels haven't signed any juco transfers under Bunting, but it hasn't been for lack of effort. According to sources, the UNC staff has been told by administrators that there is no "image-based" objection to signing any number of junior college products, which certainly sounds like a shift from previous policy. The real obstacles, instead, have been the various academic requirements imposed on juco transfer candidates.
The first academic hurdle for any jucos comes with the basic NCAA rules that govern them. It's a very low bar, embraced by Kansas State and other schools that have completely abandoned the idea of academic integrity in the athletic department. It requires high school non-qualifiers who attend junior college only to (1) earn their associate's degree, (2) compile at least 48 hours of transferable credits (a term defined very differently by different schools) with at least a 2.0 GPA, and (3) spend at least three semesters in the juco system. To be immediately eligible at his new school, a prospect additionally must have completed at least 35 percent of the course requirements of his chosen course of study at the major college.
"Even with the basic NCAA requirements, we usually lose out in two places," a UNC source said. "First, there's transferable credits. Some schools have a very, very loose definition of that term. They'll stretch course descriptions on both sides as far as possible in order to find the equivalent at their school. We don't have that option here. Second, there's the 35-percent rule. Some schools have majors that seem specifically designed to handle the (physical education) courses and other things you usually find all over most (juco) transcripts. We don't have that option, either.
"The bottom line is, we miss out on a lot of these (juco) kids just because our application of basic NCAA rules is a lot different than the way it's done in other places. Every coach who takes a job (at UNC), or at a lot of other schools, understands that. If they didn't understand it before they took the job, they come to understand it very quickly. It's not something anybody complains about. It's just part of being at UNC or a lot of other schools. At the same time, it definitely affects us in a very real way."
The second academic hurdle for juco prospects was created by the North Carolina university system and applies equally to the UNC, East Carolina and N.C. State football programs as well as all of the basketball-playing schools in the state system. It basically sets up an extra set of rules (including minimum numbers of juco credits in english, math, science, etc.) for those prospective juco transfers who had particularly poor high school transcripts. ECU coach Steve Logan recently complained about losing potential recruits because of this policy, which rarely affects the Tar Heels.
"If their high school record was so poor that they're affected by this (UNC-system) rule," the UNC source said, "it's extremely unlikely that we would be recruiting them out of junior college."
Even if a juco prospect clears the NCAA and UNC-system eligibility bars, there's no guarantee that the player will be approved by the UNC admissions department. In most cases, unless the school laid out for the prospect a suggested two-year course of study in advance (and the prospect then followed it closely), he's unlikely to emerge as someone who will be admitted to the school. In other words, the Tar Heels rarely can jump into the recruitment of an emerging prospect halfway through his juco career.
There are exceptions to that rule. ACC coaches long have stated, for example, that junior colleges in Maryland and New York tend to produce the most players with solid transcripts, whether or not their course of study was suggested in advance. At the other end of the spectrum, generally speaking, are the junior colleges in Arizona and California. Those in Kansas and Mississippi, two hotbeds of juco football, usually fall somewhere in between.