By Bill Cole
Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal
October 23, 2007
CHAPEL HILL If a class ever typified the uncertainty that can strike college football recruiting, it's North Carolina's 2004 effort.
UNC signed 24 players that year, accepted two transfers, and added two walk-ons who later became significant contributors. The program was coming off consecutive losing seasons (with five wins total), making recruiting conditions less than ideal, but a coaching staff led by John Bunting was able to offer almost immediate playing time to the prospects as incentive.
Determined work seemed to produce decent results. SuperPrep, a high school football recruiting magazine, ranked UNC's class No. 34 nationally. Scout.com thought even more of the group and had it No. 18.
Approaching four years later, the promise is gone in many cases long gone.
ONE RESULT: TINY SENIOR CLASS
The class has provided only minimal help to the Tar Heels. Bunting is no longer the coach, fired last October, although he finished the 2006 season. Butch Davis, once a highly successful coach at Miami, now has what's left of the class.
The remnants aren't much.
UNC has only 11 seniors on scholarship this season, and only four of them are original members of the Tar Heels' 2004 signing class: defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, kicker Connor Barth, defensive end Hilee Taylor and linebacker Martel Thatch.
Four more players are fifth-year seniors, leftovers from Bunting's 2003 signing class. Two other seniors (linebacker Durell Mapp, cornerback Kendric Williams) began their careers in Chapel Hill as walk-ons. One (wide receiver Joe Dailey) was a major-college transfer.
Balmer, Barth, Taylor and Mapp are four of the best players on this year's UNC team. Because they never redshirted, they will exhaust their eligibility this fall, and thus won't be available for year two of Davis' rebuilding project.
Only a handful of the class members approached the careers thought possible for them in February 2004, on national signing day. Some transferred to other schools to continue their careers. Others are no longer playing football.
UNC had a 2-5 record after seven games in its first season under Davis. Building the program in the fashion Davis desires will take time, with a weak senior class anchoring this year's team.
"That's an enormous disadvantage," Davis said. "The reality of it is that we have (11) seniors, but probably four or five really do any significant amount of playing. Not having a lot of experienced guys, those can sometimes be the difference when you go on the road or are playing at home. You need leadership at the top."
TRANSFERS PLUGGED SOME HOLES
Perhaps the most telling factor about the class is that 14 of the original 26 signees are no longer in the program.
Those numbers include Gerald Sensabaugh, a safety, and Scott Brumett, a tight end, who played the 2004 season at UNC after transferring from East Tennessee State. They were eligible immediately under NCAA rules, because the ETSU program was being disbanded.
Sensabaugh and Brumett had only one college season left. Sensabaugh used his UNC experience to gain employment in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a safety. He is in his third year in Jacksonville and earned a starting job this summer, but he is out for the season after injuring a shoulder in the second game and being placed on injured reserve. Sensabaugh and Brumett helped UNC finish 6-5 in the 2004 regular season.
The transfers offset slightly some of UNC's missed recruiting targets.
DeMario Pressley, a highly regarded defensive tackle from Greensboro, signed with N.C. State. Jamaal Edwards, Pressley's high school teammate and a prolific running back, signed with Florida State. Josh Morgan, a receiver, and Branden Ore, a running back, went to Virginia Tech. Jamar Adams, a defensive back in Matthews just outside Charlotte, signed with Michigan and became an All-Big Ten player.
Other UNC misses in 2004 who went on to become outstanding players elsewhere include Florida cornerback Tony Carter (FSU), California tailback Arian Foster (Tennessee), prep school tight end Anthony Hill (NCSU), prep school defensive end Antonio Reynolds (Tennessee) and in-state defensive end Jeremy Thompson (Wake Forest).
SUCCESS: BALMER, BARTH, TAYLOR
Only five of UNC's 2004 signees are current starters.
Taylor, a defensive end, was hampered by light weight early in his UNC career but is now the top pass rusher on the team and one of the best in the ACC. No one on the defensive line is quicker. Taylor had 28 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, and seven sacks in UNC's first seven games this fall. His sack of Kyle Wright for a 13-yard loss stopped a Miami rally on Oct. 6 and was the biggest defensive play in the Tar Heels' 33-27 win.
Barth plays only a few downs in each game yet also is crucial to the team's success. He is the kicker, a job he has held since his rookie year. He had a run of 19 consecutive field goal attempts through UNC's sixth game. That shattered the UNC record of 15 set in 1984 and was the nation's longest active streak at the time. (He missed the following week, against South Carolina.) Barth owns one of the biggest kicks in UNC history, a 42-yard field goal against Miami, then unbeaten, on the game's last play for a 31-28 win in 2004. That marked the only decision in program history over a team ranked in the AP poll's top five.
Balmer, a defensive tackle, was second on the team after seven games with 40 tackles. He started all but one of the first seven games, and Davis considers him one of the team's top players. Balmer broke into the starting lineup as a junior in 2006 and started the last eight games.
Calvin Darity, the offensive line's starter at right guard, is one of the team's most dependable blockers. A prep All-American from Florida, he started all 12 games a season ago. He overcame a slow start to his career and persevered in conditions under which other members of the class surrendered. He was redshirted in 2004 as a freshman and did not play in 2005 after breaking one of his feet in spring practice. He has a season of eligibility left.
Trimane Goddard, a safety, is developing into one of the defense's better players. He is back this season after missing 2006 because of a broken foot suffered in summer practice. Goddard, one of the quickest defenders and among the hardest hitters, had 30 tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception and a sack in the first seven games. Thanks to a redshirt, he also has a season left.
Chase Rice, a linebacker, would be among the starters but suffered a foot injury in the 2007 opener and was lost for the season. He redshirted in 2004 and thus still has a season left to play in 2008.
MAPP BLOSSOMING AS WALK-ON
Mapp, the team's leading tackler (76 through seven games) this season and a strong candidate for All-ACC honors, joined the program in 2004 but wasn't on the team's list of official signees four years ago.
If UNC made a mistake in not signing Mapp as a recruit, then so did every other major-college program in the state. He said that not only was he not offered a grant-in-aid by the state's other ACC teams, but he wasn't offered by Appalachian State or East Carolina, programs that generally do a good job of scouring the state for prospects who might have been overlooked.
Williams, another walk-on, earned a grant-in-aid and a starting job this fall, after three seasons in obscurity. His elation didn't last the season's first month, though. On Sept. 29, in a game at Virginia Tech, Williams tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He is finished for the season.
Some class members are starting to have solid careers.
Brooks Foster, a receiver, is the top reserve at his position, behind Brandon Tate. Foster missed the Miami game because of injury but had 20 catches for 305 yards and two touchdowns after seven games. He redshirted in the 2004 season, so he too is eligible to return next year.
Foster also has something no other North Carolina football player has: a national championship ring. He walked on to the 2004-05 UNC basketball team, which went on to win the NCAA Tournament. Foster played in five games as a reserve for coach Roy Williams that year.
INJURIES BITE LEMMING, OTHERS
Injuries ended the careers of four class members.
Ben Lemming, an offensive lineman, no longer can play after tearing his right shoulder's rotator cuff three times. He was first injured in the 2005 opener at Georgia Tech, after earning the starting job at center. He bounced back repeatedly, and once was expected to contribute to Davis' first team, but additional setbacks ultimately led to medical-hardship status.
Lemming counts himself a survivor, given how many of his 2004 classmates are no longer in Chapel Hill.
"We'll talk about it every once in a while," Lemming said. "A guy would transfer or leave, and another of us would be gone. We'll look around, and we don't see many of us left. We weren't all that hyped as a recruiting class, but we thought we'd help."
Lemming will graduate in the spring with a business degree. He still attends practice and all the team meetings to stay in touch with football. On some days he will get on the field and help with the scout team, so it can prepare the starting defense for the next opponent.
Wyatt Hicks, a career reserve on the offensive line, also gave up football this summer because of injury. Bad knees ended his career. Kenny Price, an offensive lineman, and Cori Powell, a fullback, were the others who had their careers cut short for medical reasons. Neither Price nor Powell is listed at UNC's on-line student directory for this academic year.
TEN MORE MISSING IN ACTION
The injured players no longer on the team would be enough of a setback. Shockingly, 10 more are missing from the program for other reasons.
Some, such as Khalif Mitchell, could have been important players this season if not for wrecking their UNC careers with erratic behavior.
Mitchell was a big and talented lineman. He had one of the most memorable hits in school history in 2004, when he collided with N.C. State tailback T.A. McLendon just short of the goal line and forced a fumble that the Tar Heels recovered in the final seconds of a 30-24 win.
Mitchell ran afoul of Bunting by breaking team rules. Mitchell was suspended after the 2005 season and transferred to East Carolina, saying he needed a fresh start. After sitting out last fall under transfer rules, he was a top reserve for ECU when it captured a 34-31 victory over UNC in September.
"It was pretty difficult. I was there for two years," Mitchell said. "I had a lot of guys on the team who were my friends. I just felt like I needed a change, a different atmosphere. I got that when I came here to East Carolina."
Mitchell had one start in ECU's first six games this season. He intercepted a pass in the Pirates' win over Central Florida. Through six games, he had 21 tackles, while playing mostly as a backup defensive tackle.
Terry Hunter also had off-the-field problems. He was already in trouble with Bunting when in February 2005 he was pulled over by campus police for driving a vehicle (which belonged to a teammate) with a faulty brake light. He also was cited for possession of 5.5 grams of marijuana, and for driving with a revoked license.
The UNC coaching staff thought Hunter, a highly regarded in-state signee, was capable of becoming a dominant defensive lineman. He is not known to have played organized football since leaving the Tar Heels.
One of Mitchell's East Carolina teammates is Marcus Hands, another tall defensive lineman. Hands was an academic casualty. He twice failed to meet NCAA minimum standards, first in high school and then in prep school.
Hands enrolled at ECU as a non-qualifier, an option not available at ACC schools. He started the Pirates' first four games this season, before an injury knocked him out of the lineup, and he has 17 starts in the last three seasons. Through six games this fall, he had 65 tackles and 7.5 sacks for his career, with one season left to play if he meets specified academic guidelines.
Michael Rozier was thought by the UNC coaching staff to be the quarterback needed to replace Darian Durant. But Rozier never made it to Chapel Hill from his high school in Georgia, instead signing a professional baseball contract with the Boston Red Sox.
Rozier stands 6-5 and is a left-handed pitcher. He was taken in the 12th round of the 2004 amateur baseball draft, with the No. 365 pick overall. Baseball analysts said then that Rozier would have gone higher had he not signed to play college football. Rozier has played for five minor-league teams since 2005. He spent the 2007 season with Lancaster of the California League, a Class A team. In three seasons, he has a 10-15 pitching record and a 5.02 earned run average.
Stephen Green, a defensive back, left UNC after one season. He returned home to Arkansas because of the ill health of one of his grandmothers, who had suffered a stroke. He enrolled at Central Arkansas and played in seven games there in 2005 as a safety. He had four tackles but left the team before the season ended because of differences with the coaching staff. He now is attending Arkansas as a regular student. He has one season of eligibility left and hopes to play for the Razorbacks in 2008.
"Ever since I left Carolina, things have been down," Green said. "I had a wreck over the summer, and I didn't pass my physical. I am trying to get that right now, so I can have a chance to compete during the spring and get a shot at playing next year. If that doesn't happen, I have dreams other than football."
Thomas Nyaoga, a coveted offensive lineman, returned home to Texas after a brief UNC stay. Kyle Geller, the football coach at Mansfield Summit High in Texas, Nyaoga's high school alma mater, said Nyaoga is attending Texas. He is not playing football but told Geller that he is near graduating.
Daniel Phelps, a cornerback from Florida, signed with UNC in 2004 but never enrolled. He was thought to have pursued a career at Central Florida, but school officials have no record of him playing there.
Bunting was hopeful that Del Roberts would prove as effective a small receiver as did Jarwarski Pollock, UNC's career leader in passes caught. Roberts didn't pan out, though, and transferred to Southern, where he is a starter. He had 29 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown in Southern's first five games this season. His catches and his game average of 54.4 receiving yards led the team. In 2006, he played in 11 games and caught 28 passes for 260 yards and one TD.
Vince Wilson, a late signee for the Tar Heels in 2004, never blossomed at running back and returned home to Florida. He played briefly at Bethune-Cookman, in his hometown of Daytona Beach, but did not re-join the team in the summer of 2006. He wanted to enroll at Florida State but is out of football.
Antwain Carey, a running back, gave up football to concentrate on track. He is a senior at UNC this year. In last season's outdoor track season, he ran the 100 meters in 11.11 seconds and the 200 meters in 22.43. In the indoor season, he ran the 60 meters in 7.13 seconds and the 200 meters in 23.20.
SEVERAL SURVIVORS PLAY LITTLE
Many others in UNC's 2004 class have cobbled only marginal careers.
Thatch, a linebacker, is a career reserve. He made his first tackle of the season against Miami. He had 31 games of experience coming into 2007, mostly on special teams and in spot action. Thatch was a high school teammate of Pressley and Edwards, two of the higher-profile high school seniors in North Carolina during the 2003 football season.
Joey Bozich was the last addition to the class. He was headed to prep school in Maine when the UNC coaches were sent a tape of his play as a high school quarterback in Illinois. Bunting saw enough promise to sign him.
Bozich redshirted in 2004. He played quarterback for only the 2005 season. In three games as a backup, he completed three of nine passes for 12 yards and an interception. Then he started changing positions in an effort to find a more useful playing spot.
His stocky body build prompted a move to fullback for 2006. He was a reserve then and also played on special teams, seeing action in eight games. Now a redshirt junior, he is a reserve linebacker. He did not have a tackle in UNC's first seven games.
Bryon Bishop is the top reserve at left guard. He redshirted during the 2004 season and did not play in 2005, when a back injury required surgery. He played in five games last season, mainly as a blocker for field goals and extra points.
DAVIS PAYING FOR MISTAKES
The effect of the now-small 2004 class is easy for Davis to judge. Two of his early opponents this season, South Florida and Virginia Tech, had programs with solid groups of seniors and juniors. Both beat UNC, at least in part to Davis because those teams had veterans, and because exactly half of UNC's 84 grant-in-aid players are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
Because of the extreme level of youth, Davis and his coaches are forced to teach their players this season how to win games against bigger, stronger and more experienced opponents.
"There's a lot of things (involved with teaching players to win)," Davis said. "We could write a book on all the things. Some of it is football-related, some's not football-related.
"One of the elements is experience. So many of our players are just struggling to do the right thing. It's a major accomplishment when they know their assignments. They just haven't had enough opportunities.
"It comes. It slowly but surely, little by little, every single season, comes."
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