By Neil Amato
Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News
October 25, 2006
The weekend of Oct. 14 could have been a glorious one in Chapel Hill. The sun was shining, a supposedly lesser football program was visiting Kenan Stadium, and the weather was chamber-of-commerce perfect for the noon kickoff.
"Well, it's a beautiful day, and then the game started," embattled North Carolina coach John Bunting said, after his team dropped to 1-5 with a 37-20 loss to South Florida, a relative newcomer to Division I-A football.
The Tar Heels, as has happened often under Bunting, and not just in the lean years of 2002 and 2003, weren't competitive. South Florida may have a broader local talent pool from which to recruit, but UNC recruited pretty well in the recent past, efforts that should make the 2006 team better than it is.
Though Carolina's problems are many, a look back is in order to learn more about several issues.
The Tar Heels' signing-day class of 2003 was regarded by those who follow recruiting full-time as one of the 20 best in the country. Four football seasons later, however, in what should be the senior season for that class, UNC is struggling mightily. Half the players from the class are no longer on the team.
The Heels don't have a veteran quarterback, at least not one who's been in the program for more than two years. Their front seven on defense doesn't pressure the quarterback and, though not as overmatched as the 2002 and 2003 defenses, still struggles to stop the run. And while the team has a dependable player in Jesse Holley and a star in the making in freshman Hakeem Nicks, the receiving corps could be far more dangerous.
Flash back two years ago, to another second Saturday in October, when the Tar Heels still had issues but seemed to project upward mobility, not fading fortune. It was Oct. 9, a night game at Kenan Stadium. Though the finish was controversial, UNC had a 30-24 victory over N.C. State.
Receiver Adarius Bowman caught a fourth-quarter, 46-yard touchdown pass that evening. Linebacker Fred Sparkman made the defensive calls from his middle linebacker spot. Defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell hammered N.C. State tailback T.A. McLendon, creating the fumble with six seconds left that the Tar Heels recovered to win the game.
Among Bunting's words to his team that night, according to UNC athletic director Dick Baddour later that week, were these: "Take care of yourselves. Do the right thing; you know what the right things are. We've got a great victory. Let's don't do anything to mar it."
Not everyone listened.
The next night, in the final hours before the weekend became Monday, UNC campus police investigated a complaint from a dorm, something about the smell of marijuana. Police went to the room of mammoth defensive lineman Isaiah "Puff" Thomas and, according to the report, found Thomas, Bowman, Sparkman and a strong smell of marijuana.
That TD pass Bowman caught the previous night? It was his last catch as a Tar Heel, but he's still catching touchdowns -- and in a big way. Sparkman never made another tackle in light blue. Thomas wears a shade reminiscent of UNC's primary color, but it's for Division I-AA Southern. Mitchell is at East Carolina, sitting out this season, also after being dismissed by UNC.
With the exception of Mitchell, all were sophomores that fall, but in less than two years, they all went different ways. The Tar Heels immediately felt the absence of Bowman, Sparkman and Thomas that season, though the team would shock then-No. 4 Miami three weeks after the State win and later play in a bowl.
The numbers bear it out: North Carolina has a hole in the middle of its program, caused by the absence of so many potential starters and key reserves.
"A HELLUVA CLASS"
To further study the root of the problem, it's necessary to go even further back, to Feb. 5, 2003, national signing day for college football. The Tar Heels went 3-9 in 2002, with the afterglow of their 8-5 2001 season -- Bunting's first as the head coach at his alma mater -- gone but not forgotten by recruits.
The coaching staff used that Peach Bowl run, spurred by a talented defense that included three players who later became NFL starters, to lay the groundwork for the Class of 2003. As juniors, those prospects saw the Tar Heels rout Florida State in Bunting's first win, a 41-9 shocker that gave the coach instant cred and started his team on a five-game winning streak. Kids may not pick a team based on one win, but back then any win over FSU was worth milking.
So the pieces were in place for a solid 2003 class. The coaching staff had made inroads with some of the best juniors in the country the previous year, and the 3-9 season, in the words of one former UNC assistant, actually helped on the recruiting trail at times.
"Sometimes, it's a lot easier recruiting when you're losing," said James Webster, a former teammate of Bunting's at UNC and Bunting's first hire in December 2000. "At Carolina, you can always recruit there, because you can always sell academics. We could also sell that the reason we're losing is because we don't have that many good players. We could sell, You can come here and play as true freshmen.' The opportunity was there."
Webster, now the head coach at Division I-AA Tennessee State, had worked 20-plus years as a college assistant and had seen his share of recruiting classes. Most coaches don't want to assess the signing-day crop for a couple of years, as they wait to see how it develops, but Webster and many others knew the Tar Heels had a fine group assembled: 26 players, including one junior college All-American and several top-notch high school products.
"It was a helluva class," Webster said.
RETENTION IS CRUCIAL
Securing the signatures of a talented group is one thing. Getting those players to show up, and then keeping them on the team, is another. UNC's former wide receivers coach said the importance of recruiting -- and retention -- cannot be overstated.
"It's probably 95 percent of it," said Gunter Brewer, now at Oklahoma State. "Coaching's overrated. You can screw a game up by having bad coaching, but if you've got good players, it increases your amount of winning 10-fold."
Brewer helped recruit a trio of receivers to UNC that could have, as a group, gone down as the finest in school history. Though coaching elsewhere, Brewer still enjoys at least part of the fruits of his labor. Bowman landed at Oklahoma State in the months after Carolina announced he would not return to the team. His marijuana charge was dropped a month after police visited the dorm room, but Bowman had tested positive for marijuana earlier, and, three months after the charge, UNC let him go with little public explanation.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy acknowledged taking a chance on Bowman.
"There'll be players that we recruit that come into our program that may not have as picture-perfect a background as other players," Gundy said. "But when they're in our program, we ask them to do things right and we work extremely hard to provide for them and give them a chance to have success. If they're willing to buy in, we stand with them from start to finish. We look at the players differently when they're in our program, compared to what may have happened in the past."
Bowman's past appears to be behind him. On the field, he seems free. The same day the Tar Heels lost to South Florida, the 6-4, 220-pound Bowman wowed the nation by catching 13 passes for 300 yards and four touchdowns. It was a school record and the best single-game performance this fall by 62 yards.
Brewer ribbed Bowman, saying he expected that kind of production every week. Gundy liked what he heard from the player once rated the No. 5 receiver in the country.
"When we talked about (the record), he said, Coach, I'm just glad we won,'" Gundy said. "I could tell by his tone of voice that he meant that."
TWO YEARS REMOVED
When Fred Sparkman heard about Bowman's 300-yard game, he thought back to the coaching staff that jettisoned them.
"I bet they're biting themselves," Sparkman said.
The former linebacker hasn't played a down of football since the win over N.C. State, and he hasn't taken a college class since going through the motions at UNC in the second part of that fall semester. He now works for an inventory company in Tennessee, taking stock of various businesses' goods. Recently, he counted stacks of apparel at a mall clothing store.
Sparkman said he wishes football was still part of his life.
"It's what I do," he said.
He said he doesn't have enough credits to gain entry into a Division I-AA program such as Southern, where only an injury keeps Thomas out of the starting lineup. He and Thomas have stayed in touch, and they talk about what might have been in Chapel Hill.
"I stopped doing anything, quit going to class," Sparkman said of the time after he was suspended. "I quit doing everything. I knew I was going home, so I guess I messed up on that part, too. I was so mad."
Sparkman doesn't feel like he was given a fair shake. Bunting has insisted that Sparkman and others had opportunities to earn their way back onto the team. Neither would give details.
"We gave those kids," Bunting said, "every chance to be here."
Bunting and Sparkman could use each other. With classmate Larry Edwards now out with an injury, the Tar Heels are notably thin at linebacker. Sparkman, in the eyes of recruiting analyst Miller Safrit, was headed toward greatness.
"The way he progressed," Safrit said, "we thought he had a chance to play in the NFL."
The departed players on the defensive front also had pro potential. Because of attrition, UNC in 2006 essentially is playing second-teamers as its starting defensive line. Thomas, Mitchell, Marcus Hands and Terry Hunter could have been the starters. Hands, who never made it to UNC because of academics, now starts at East Carolina. Hunter and the other two were dismissed.
"Opposing offensive lines are using four players to block four players," Safrit said. "Most of those (departed players) would warrant double-teams, but that's not happening now."
PROBLEMS ON OFFENSE
The Tar Heels signed two quarterbacks in 2003, a number that coaches think should be part of every other recruiting class.
UNC brought in Nick Cangelosi from New Jersey and Roger Heinz from Tallahassee, Fla. Neither took a meaningful snap for the Tar Heels.
Cangelosi was homesick and ended up 250 miles closer to his family, as a quarterback at Division I-AA Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Heinz was in the program for three seasons, but a back injury led UNC to give him a medical hardship in 2005.
Those developments later contributed to the Tar Heels' decisions to take Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey and to start redshirt freshman Cam Sexton. Sexton wasn't ready to start this fall, but no other options existed.
At wide receiver, the only member of the 2003 class still playing is Jesse Holley, a big enough, fast enough target who works best as a complement to players such as Bowman and speedy Mike Mason, another touted 2003 signee who was dismissed from the team after last season.
Brewer can't help but wonder how things might have been different.
"What little bit of flashes we've been able to see of those guys," Brewer said, "at this stage now would be indescribable."
On signing day in 2003, UNC signed a full class that caught the attention of the gurus. Today, exactly half of that class is elsewhere -- playing, waiting to play, or doing inventory in Columbia, Tenn.
"As I recall, we worked very hard that recruiting season," said Webster, the coach at Tennessee State since 2005. "We knew that we had to have a great recruiting year. If we got certain guys, they would be the foundation.
"If things had worked out, and right now (in mid-October) Carolina's 1-5, I really believe that if they had been able to stay there and play together, Carolina would be more like 5-1. I don't know what they have now, because I'm not there, but I know what has departed. I know that with those kids, they'd be 5-1."
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Adarius Bowman: A consensus top-20 receiver out of high school, he provided a rare mix of speed and size. A muscular 6-4, he could run past defensive backs and carve out space.
"He's got a T.O. body type," Brewer said.
Bowman was leading the Tar Heels in yards and touchdown catches when he was suspended midway through the 2004 season. By the next summer, he had landed at Oklahoma State, where Brewer had gone after the 2004 season.
Bowman sat out 2005 under NCAA transfer rules, but he's been a beast this fall. Through six games, he led the nation in receiving yards.
Nick Cangelosi: He was the top-rated quarterback out of New Jersey, starring in football and basketball at Camden Catholic, where he passed for 25 touchdowns and nearly 2,200 yards as a senior. He also passed the look test at 6-3 and 215 pounds.
Cangelosi decided after a redshirt season in Chapel Hill that he wanted to be closer to home and his family. He transferred to Georgetown, where he started as a junior. He has played little this season, after several injuries.
Kory Gedin: He didn't pass the look test, seemingly a little too thick in the ankles for major college football, but he came highly regarded out of Gonzaga in Washington, D.C.
Gedin never played a down for the Tar Heels, transferring to the Ivy League. He is a top tackler for Pennsylvania, where through Oct. 14 he had played in 25 games.
Marcus Hands: He is the best player this fall in East Carolina's front seven. He is double-teamed often, and his statistics have suffered somewhat because of that. But Hands has started every game in 2006 for the Pirates, after having shoulder surgery late in the 2005 season. Before his injury, he was second in Conference USA in sacks.
Hands got plenty of recruiting attention out of Laney High in Wilmington, but subpar academics first sent him to Hargrave Military Academy and later kept him from gaining admission to UNC, as the ACC does not accept non-qualifiers.
Roger Heinz: Any scholarship quarterback draws interest, and Heinz was no different, given where he came from -- right under the nose of Florida State. His older brother played at FSU, and the mystique of adding a top-100 player from the Sunshine State added to the appeal.
That's where the buzz over Heinz ended. Outside of being the holder in 2004, he rarely played. He was beset by back trouble and eventually was given a medical hardship. He wasn't likely to make the two-deep anyway.
Terry Hunter: Perhaps no highly rated player in recent memory has had a more curious path than Hunter, who signed with great fanfare out of East Wake High but never amounted to much of anything on the field in Chapel Hill. He attended Hargrave Military Academy for a semester, after failing to qualify academically. Then, before spring practice in 2004, he left the team for reasons Bunting termed "very private." He was late to rejoin the team for preseason practice and contributed late in the year, with nine tackles.
In February 2005, he was charged with possession of marijuana and driving with a revoked license. Months later, he was dismissed. Although Bunting said this summer that Hunter might be able to return, possibly as a walk-on, that hasn't happened.
Joe Kedra: He came to Chapel Hill rated by one recruiting analyst as one of the top 20 linebackers in the country. He never realized that promise, hampered by injuries that eventually ended his career. Kedra played as a freshman, redshirted in 2004 after injuring his knee and later was given a medical hardship.
Donnell Livingston: He was moved to the offensive line and didn't contribute in his two seasons. The Sarasota, Fla., native left in July 2005, in search of more playing time. He ended up at Division I-AA Bethune-Cookman, where in 2005 he went back to defense, recording 22 tackles. This season he had not seen the field as of mid-October.
Mike Mason: He became a critical part of the offense and special teams immediately at UNC. During his freshman season, he caught three touchdown passes and returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. He was one of the most electrifying players in the program.
After Mason was dismissed in December 2005, he followed Webster to Tennessee State. In an interview with his hometown newspaper last summer, Mason said his dismissal had something to do with UNC's Honor Court, which investigates academic malfeasance.
At Tennessee State, Mason was the Tigers' leading receiver this fall until suffering a knee injury in the third game. Mason also excelled as a kick returner, with runbacks of 67, 54 and 37 yards. He was averaging 31.7 per return before his injury, which was supposed to keep him out until late October.
"He's been a leader of this football team," Webster said. "He's grown up."
Khalif Mitchell: He is NFL big (6-6, 297) and was starting to come into his own with the Tar Heels. He started two games during his freshman season and played in all 11 last fall. As a sophomore, he recorded 13 tackles. He was fairly new to the game, having played just two seasons of football before signing with UNC in 2003. He spent a year at prep school before joining the Heels in 2004.
Bunting announced in July that Mitchell no longer was enrolled at UNC because of "off-the-field" issues. The coach left the door open for a return, but Mitchell is sitting out this season as a transfer at East Carolina.
Fred Sparkman: He seemed headed for an excellent career as soon as he signed with UNC. He was a strong player with good instincts, and he had caught the attention of the recruiting gurus, who put him among the top 15 at his position nationally.
Sparkman didn't start as a freshman, but he did as a sophomore, until he was suspended midway through the 2004 season after a marijuana charge. He left school and has not played football since.
Isaiah Thomas: He was dismissed from the team in February 2005, four months after his arrest on marijuana charges.
Coming out of Carver High in Winston-Salem, he was one of the Southeast's most sought-after players. In less than two full seasons, he had begun to fulfill that promise, working his way into a starting role and reshaping his 300-pound body. He ended up at Southern, located in Baton Rouge, La. He started the first three games there this fall, before suffering a knee injury that required surgery. He could return later this season.
Recruits: 26 Points: 130 (5.0 per)
All-ACC Selections/Candidates: 1
Starters: 11 % Starters: 42.3
Second Team: 2 % Contributors: 50.0
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 10
NC DB Bryan Bethea Second Team
TN WR Adarius Bowman Dismissed/Oklahoma State
NJ DE Melik Brown* Second Team
GA DT Shelton Bynum* Two-Year Starter
NJ QB Nick Cangelosi Transfer/Georgetown
FL LB Larry Edwards#* Three-Year Starter
DC LB Kory Gedin Transfer/Penn
TX OL Charlston Gray Three-Year Starter
JC DB Lionell Green Starter/Graduated
NC DT Kyndraus Guy Starter
VA TE Jon Hamlett* Two-Year Starter
NC DT Marcus Hands Non-Qualifier/ECU
FL QB Roger Heinz Medical 2005
NJ WR Jesse Holley* Two-Year Starter
NC DE Terry Hunter Non-Qualifier/Dismissed
NJ LB Joe Kedra Medical 2005
GA OL Scott Lenahan Starter
FL DT Donnell Livingston Transfer/B-Cookman
NC WR Mike Mason Transfer/Tennessee State
SC RB Ronnie McGill* Two-Year Starter
VA DT Khalif Mitchell N-Q/Dismissed/ECU
NC DB Quinton Person Starter
VA DT Kenny Price Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
TN LB Fred Sparkman Dismissed 2004
VA DB Kareen Taylor* Three-Year Starter
NC DT Isaiah Thomas Dismissed/Southern
^ 2003 walk-on ! I-A transfer # injured
* never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall
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