October 4, 2004 CHAPEL HILL If the John Bunting era at North Carolina comes to an end this year, one of the painful ironies of the former linebacker's coaching tenure at his alma mater will be his inability to develop enough quality linebackers to form a competitive defense.
"We still have a lot of work to do there," Bunting said recently. "We're still looking for the right fit. We're not making enough plays there. There's no doubt about that."
It would be far too simplistic to suggest that the Tar Heels' many problems under Bunting can be traced solely to their lack of production at linebacker. Defensive end has been another disaster area for the past three seasons. Defensive tackle has had more than its share of problems, too. The last outstanding cornerback in the program, Dre' Bly, departed in the 1999 NFL draft, prior to Bunting's arrival in Chapel Hill. There has been a huge hole at tight end for two years now.
But what's particularly strange about UNC's woes at linebacker is that most college coaches will tell you that it's not particularly hard to find good candidates for the position on the recruiting trail. Mobile, academically sound, super-sized defensive tackles? They're few and far between in the high school ranks. Athletic, powerful offensive tackles? They're not easy to find, either. But quick, strong, tough, hard-hitting linebackers? They don't exactly grow on trees, but relatively speaking they're more readily available. A lot more quality athletes can comfortably carry 220-240 pounds on their frames, as opposed to 280-320.
Moreover, unlike at other positions, especially quarterback, Carolina theoretically has more than enough linebacker-related selling points to be able to attract promising prospects. UNC alum Lawrence Taylor may be the best linebacker in the history of football. Sedrick Hodge (New Orleans), Keith Newman (Minnesota), Brian Simmons (Cincinnati) and David Thornton (Indianapolis), all graduates from the 1990s, are on NFL rosters this fall. The program became famous in the mid-1990s for its hard-hitting defenses, and as recently as 1996 and 1997 the Tar Heels spent two years in the national top 10 largely because of their dominating front seven. Bunting himself played linebacker in the NFL from 1972-82.
Nevertheless, here's a list of the linebackers UNC signed during the three-year stretch from 2000-02: Melik Brown (2002), Devllen Bullard (2000), Tommy Davis (2001), Ike Emodi (2001), Clarence Gaddy (2000), Kitwana Jones (2000), Doug Justice (2001), Jeff Longhany (2001) and Victor Worsley (2002). Not only does that group represent a lack of superstars, there may not be even a single average ACC player in the bunch. That's why the Tar Heels have had to try to patch together a linebacker corps with rookies, second-year players and converted safeties over the past two seasons, with very little success.
Between Bunting and his predecessor Carl Torbush, another linebacker specialist who was entirely responsible for the 2000 class and largely responsible for 2001 (the dreaded "hand-off" class), Carolina made just about every mistake imaginable with linebackers on the recruiting trail. They failed to land many prep All-Americans or other in-demand targets, they took too many academic risks, they made inaccurate talent evaluations, and they did a horrible job of projecting high school bodies into their eventual college positions.
Brown, Emodi and Jones all initially failed to qualify academically. Emodi enrolled at East Carolina as a non-qualifier. Jones re-signed with the Tar Heels but had all kinds of academic and disciplinary problems and eventually was dismissed from the team. Brown arrived at UNC after a semester of prep school but has bounced back and forth between linebacker and end for two years.
Brown and Davis lacked enough speed for linebacker and ultimately converted to end, where they're playing quite a bit (but without much distinction) this fall. Many believe the same thing should have happened with the slow-footed Gaddy (graduated last year) and the oversized Longhany (a part-time starter this fall), but both remained at linebacker under Bunting. Bullard was a completely unheralded signee who played down to that reputation.
While Gaddy was the lone consensus prep All-American from the group listed above, many colleges projected him as a defensive end at the time. Justice and Worsley also were fairly well-regarded coming out of high school, but neither has developed into a front-line player. Justice is by far UNC's smartest and most technically sound linebacker this fall, but many fans remember him being run down by an N.C. State offensive lineman after a turnover earlier in his career. Worsley has suffered through a variety of injury problems, while contributing mainly on special teams.
Turnover, Geography Didn't Help
Bunting and his staff deserve some credit for doing a much better job on the recruiting trail with the Class of 2003, in which UNC signed four highly touted linebackers as part of a top-25 class that still has a chance to live up to that reputation.
Fred Sparkman (Tennessee), Larry Edwards (Florida), Joe Kedra (New Jersey) and Kory Gedin (D.C.) all were out-of-state linebackers who were recruited at a very high level, and all four passed up scholarship offers from very prominent programs to play for the Tar Heels. Just a year and a half after signing day, Sparkman (among league leaders in tackles this season) and Edwards (mostly in 2003) already have established themselves as starting-quality players, albeit with plenty of growing pains. The jury is still out on Kedra, who has battled injury problems, while Gedin transferred out of the program in the spring without ever playing a down for the Tar Heels.
There was nothing embarrassing about the loss of Gedin, an outstanding student who quickly realized he was in over his head at the ACC level football-wise. He is playing this fall for Division I-AA Pennsylvania, in the Ivy League. Every staff in America makes its share of talent evaluation mistakes, and a 75 percent or even 50 percent batting average with UNC's linebackers from the Class of 2003 would represent an acceptable rate of return.
The much bigger concern among many Carolina fans has been the Tar Heels' handling of Sparkman and Edwards, two young players who obviously have enough physical talent to contribute at the ACC level but who nevertheless have struggled during their brief time in Chapel Hill. There's nothing unusual about second-year linebackers occasionally lining up incorrectly or missing assignments. But the frequency of such mistakes by the sophomores and numerous UNC upperclassmen this fall has been particularly alarming, especially after the transition from coordinator Dave Huxtable's more complicated 2003 scheme to the so-called "simplified" version offered by 2004 co-coordinators John Gutekunst and Marvin Sanders.
Perhaps the assistant coaching transition Huxtable handled linebackers last year, Gutekunst this season slowed the development of Sparkman and Edwards. Thrust into the role of defensive leader as the starting middle linebacker, Sparkman at times has appeared overwhelmed by the responsibility of calling the defensive signals and the challenge of directing 10 teammates on every down. On a remarkable number of plays this season, UNC's opponent has snapped the ball before the defense was set. Meanwhile, Edwards inexplicably showed up overweight and out-of-shape he blamed a "misunderstanding" with the coaches for preseason practice, relegating him to a reserve role after an extremely promising 2003 debut.
Finally, it's only fair to point out that the state of North Carolina, which serves as the foundation of UNC's recruiting base, has produced an unbelievably small number of outstanding linebackers in recent years. Some may wonder whether the best prospects simply aren't being identified and/or developed properly by the Tar Heels, but if that were the complete explanation there likely would be plenty of examples of in-state linebackers who went on to significant success with other teams. That's not the case.
Over the last five years (2000-04), the state of North Carolina has produced exactly one elite linebacker: Florida State junior A.J. Nicholson, from the Class of 2002. Otherwise, only Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay (N.C. State), William Kershaw (Maryland) and Longhany (UNC) are even starters for BCS-conference teams this fall. In that same period, Florida State landed in-state linebackers Buster Davis, Sam McGrew, Ray Piquion and Ernie Sims, and Virginia didn't have to go far for in-state signees Darryl Blackstock, Ahmad Brooks, Dennis Haley and Kai Parham. Those players help form two of the strongest units on two of the best teams in the ACC this season.
These remarkable statistics probably don't make UNC fans feel any better about the Tar Heels' current predicament at linebacker, but they do provide another example of how problems of such enormous proportions almost always stem from more than one cause.