CHAPEL HILL –The biggest recruiting priority for North Carolina coach Larry Fedora has been keeping the top in-state talent from continuing to head south.
The Tar Heels finally took a step in that direction with the verbal commitment from Charlotte Catholic running back Elijah Hood, who announced in late August that he would be coming to UNC after the senior backed out of his initial commitment to Notre Dame.
In the days leading up to Hood’s (second) commitment, recruiting coordinator Walt Bell tweeted out photos of freshman running back and Durham native Khris Francis’s mother at practice, sending the message that it’s easy to have family around when you stay close to home (of course that might be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the player).
In a statement he posted on Twitter, Hood said that proximity played a major role in his decision to come to Chapel Hill.
“Of all the schools, North Carolina has endeared me the most because it feels like home,” Hood wrote. “Further, this decision will allow not only my family, but also my community to continue to be a part of me as I grow not only academically and physically, but in faith and maturity as well.”
Scout.com ranks Hood as the top player from the state of North Carolina. The order changes slightly depending on the recruiting website, but regardless, Hood’s arrival would be a big step toward fulfilling Fedora’s goal of retaining the top in-state players.
UNC also locked up the seventh-ranked player in the state, Charlotte offensive tackle Bentley Spain, and the Tar Heels are in the running for Durham Hillside wide receiver Trevion Thompson, who is third on the Scout list.
Fedora had hardly any time to recruit the Class of 2012 once he was hired in December 2011 – though it didn’t stop the staff from getting current top receiver Quinshad Davis out of Gaffney, S.C. Still, Fedora and his staff couldn’t stop any of the eight Top 150 players (according to Scout’s national rankings) that hailed from the Old North State from going south – three to Florida, two to Georgia, two to Clemson and one to South Carolina.
The state produced five more Top 150 recruits in 2013, and again, all five crossed the border, instead choosing to play for LSU, Clemson, Tennessee, South Carolina and Stanford (UNC’s top-ranked in-state recruit, running back T.J. Logan, was 210th on the list).
Coincidentally, Logan faced off against Hood in the NCHSAA 3-AA state title game last season. Greensboro Northern Guilford won handily behind Logan’s 510 rushing yards and eight TDs, but Hood still finished the year with 3,309 yards and 47 touchdowns on 278 carries.
If Hood remains committed and signs with UNC in February, he will follow the path of Durham Hillside graduate Greg Little and Florida native Giovani Bernard, who both originally chose Notre Dame and then wound up playing for the Tar Heels instead.
UNC coaches speak often about how recruits don’t have to leave the state to fulfill their hopes and dreams. They point out that only Alabama (12) has had more players drafted in the first two rounds of the last three NFL drafts than Carolina (nine).
The Tar Heels have had plenty of success recently taking UNC natives such as Jonathan Cooper (Wilmington), Quinton Coples (Kinston), Bruce Carter (Havelock), Little (Durham), Kentwan Balmer (Roanoke Rapids) and Hakeem Nicks (Charlotte) and turning them into high draft picks.
Now Fedora wants to find the next cycle of in-state prospects to add to the list.
North Carolina’s first two games went pretty much as expected. The Tar Heels were outplayed thoroughly at South Carolina, and then won their home opener handily against Middle Tennessee.
The defensive problems against South Carolina weren’t shocking to anyone who followed the team last season, although the issues on offense and special teams were somewhat new.
The defense focused all offseason on limiting big plays, which resulted from missed assignments and poor tackling.
So the Gamecocks had a 65-yard touchdown pass on their third play from scrimmage when cornerback Tim Scott (who had no safety help in the middle) played the wrong technique on a post route, and then a 75-yard run on their first play of the third quarter when Jabari Price got to the right gap but lowered his head and missed the tackle.
Still, the defense held the Gamecocks to 27 points, a total that UNC had reached in every game but one last season (an 18-14 win over Miami). But the offense didn’t fulfill its end in Columbia, failing to reach 300 yards for the first time under Fedora.
Even the special teams didn’t rise to the occasion – especially the punt-return unit, which is the only position group that Fedora handles directly. After being spoiled by the punt-returning prowess of Bernard and the punt-blocking ability of Romar Morris last season, the punt return unit committed the game’s only turnover when T.J. Thorpe failed to make a clean catch in the first half.
“We’re only in Year Two,” Fedora said afterward. “I wish we were further along than we are, but we’re not. It was a good measuring stick for us.”
The Tar Heels did a better job in Week Two, albeit against a far weaker opponent. The offense put up their customary 40 points and 500 yards, and the defense forced its first four turnovers of the season. The special teams also didn’t commit any errors – despite having to kick off to start both halves, the result of a bizarre and embarrassing miscommunication during the coin flip.
“I thought there were a lot of times today that we were playing the type of ball that we want to play, and then there were times we didn't,” Fedora said. “We’ve got a lot to correct. We’ve got a lot of room for improvement in all three phases. All three phases. But there were some really bright spots out there today.”
UNC didn’t have a problem with non-BCS opponents last year, either, beating Elon, Idaho and East Carolina by a combined score of 155-6.
The real test will come in the next four games, which includes trips to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and a home game against suddenly resurgent Miami.