By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
September 6, 2004 When the recruiting cycle began with members of the Class of 2003, North Carolina was coming off an 8-5 season and a Peach Bowl victory in coach John Bunting's impressive debut (in 2001) at his alma mater. By the time the Tar Heels stumbled to a 3-9 record in the fall of 2002, the seeds already had been planted for a February 2003 signing class (Adarius Bowman, Larry Edwards, Mike Mason, Ronnie McGill, Fred Sparkman, Isaiah Thomas, etc.) that ultimately was rated by virtually everyone among the top 20 in the nation. Similarly, with the Class of 2004, UNC had a relatively effective sales pitch, especially at the beginning of the recruiting cycle, before the 2-10 disaster on the field last fall. The Tar Heels still had more players selected in the NFL draft over the previous decade than all ACC programs except Florida State and Miami. They still had more than $50 million worth of renovations done in the late 1990s with the football complex in and around Kenan Stadium, which some national commentators consider one of the best facilities in the nation. Again, by the time the losses piled up, the pieces already were in place for a February 2004 signing class that some ranked in the top 20 nationally and everyone else had in the top 40.
"Our recruiting results over the last two years are a big part of the foundation for how we're going to get this thing turned around," Bunting said. "We completely revamped our approach to recruiting after things didn't happen the way we wanted them to (with the Class of 2002), and it has really paid off. We're faster, we're more athletic and we're more talented. We still have to grow up some, but everyone who looks out on that field can see that we're moving in the right direction with these last two classes."
One problem for North Carolina on the recruiting trail this year is that it's much harder to sell back-to-back seasons of 3-9 and 2-10, regardless of any other legitimate positives in the program's sales pitch. Those were the ugly numbers in many recruits' minds when the recruiting cycle began with the Class of 2005, and any UNC targets who may not be thinking of those records are likely to be reminded of them by rival recruiters in the coming months.
The consensus top two seniors in the state this year, Winston-Salem Mt. Tabor linebacker Derek Nicholson and Jamestown Ragsdale tailback Toney Baker, both listed UNC among their top five schools entering September. But both also have mentioned publicly that they're taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tar Heels, because they want to be part of a winning program. Among Nicholson's other favorites are Miami and FSU, where his brother A.J. is a starting linebacker this fall. The others in Baker's top five are N.C. State, Tennessee, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Have some members of the Class of 2005 directly told the UNC coaches that they'll consider a commitment to Carolina only if the Heels post a winning record this fall?
"There are a few," Bunting said, without mentioning names. "Everyone wants to win, and I understand that. That's what we're working toward. That's where we're headed. Most (prospects) are excited about all the things this great university and this football program have to offer. ... Yes, there are a few."
Below is a review of UNC's commitments whose information capsules were not included in previous editions of the Sports Journal:
Atlanta (GA) North Springs OL Andre Barbour, rated one of the top 75 seniors in Georgia, committed to UNC in June over Duke and Middle Tennessee State. Auburn (camp), Florida, Oklahoma and West Virginia also showed interest. He has played football for only three seasons, including his freshman year on the junior varsity, after missing his sophomore campaign to focus on academics. As a junior, he started at left tackle for a 6-4 team that plays in Class 4A, Georgia's second-largest classification. A projected offensive tackle at the college level as well, Barbour benches 280 pounds, squats 330 and runs the 40-yard dash in 5.4 seconds. A UNC summer camper, he has a 3.0 GPA and a 22 ACT score. His main recruiter with the Heels is running backs coach Andre' Powell.
"I wanted to leave the state, and I was looking for a great combination of academics and football," said Barbour, who wants to study sports medicine. "(UNC) was the best fit. It's one of the highest-rated universities in the nation, and the talent level on the team is getting better every year. They want me probably as a left tackle. That's my favorite position, and they don't have many (offensive tackles) coming back next year, so that was a good fit, too. I still need to get bigger, but I've already gained 20 pounds since last year."
Johnstown (PA) Bishop McCort TE Jose Cruz, rated one of the top 30 seniors in Pennsylvania, chose UNC in July over Boston College (camp) and Indiana. Marshall, Penn State, Pittsburgh and West Virginia also showed interest. As a junior, playing in a run-based offense, he caught two passes for 21 yards and a touchdown. Also a standout power forward in basketball, Cruz averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds last season, but he will focus on football exclusively in college. A UNC summer camper, he runs the 40 in 4.8 seconds. He has a 2.7 GPA and an 850 SAT score. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is running backs coach Andre' Powell.
"I loved everything about UNC," Cruz said. "The campus, the tradition, the players, the coaches, the weather, the facilities. Everything is first-class. I'm really looking forward to working with Coach (Ken) Browning. That guy (UNC's tight ends coach) really knows football. I learned a lot from him at camp, and it'll be great to be coached by him every day."
Tabor City (NC) South Columbus DB Bryan Dixon, rated one of the top
30 seniors in North Carolina, opted for childhood favorite UNC in June over
Clemson, Duke and East Carolina. Maryland, Nebraska, N.C. State and Wake Forest
also showed interest. A South Carolina (Loris) resident, he attends high school
just across the North Carolina border at South Columbus, where he is a four-year
starter. As a junior, he had 976 rushing yards and 720 receiving yards on offense,
with 62 tackles and six interceptions on defense, for an
11-2 team that competes at the Class 2A level. A UNC summer camper who is projected as a cornerback for the Tar Heels, he consistently runs the 40 in under 4.5 seconds and has a 37-inch vertical jump. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is offensive line coach Hal Hunter.
"They've been getting a lot of really good players I played against (in high school), so I know they're going to be very good the next few years," Dixon said. "I've known for a long time that Carolina is the place for me. I was thrilled when they started to recruit me, and when they offered me a scholarship it was over. That's my school. I'm not going to let a bad record or anything else scare me away. We'll turn it around."
Roanoke Rapids (NC) High DE Darrius Massenburg, rated one of the top 20 seniors in North Carolina, selected childhood favorite UNC in June over ECU. Boston College, Penn State, Virginia and Virginia Tech also showed interest. He's a good friend of UNC freshman Kentwan Balmer, who played at nearby Weldon (NC) High. As a middle linebacker, Massenburg had 119 tackles as a sophomore for a 9-3 team and 113 tackles as a junior on a 4-8 team. He's playing defensive end this fall, in anticipation of playing that position for the Tar Heels. He runs the 40 in 4.7 seconds. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is tight ends coach Kenny Browning.
"His best football days are ahead of him," Roanoke Rapids coach Tim Bennett said. "He's just scratching the surface. He has big hands, big feet and is going to grow some. He is a young man of high character and has a great work ethic."
Venice (FL) High OL/DT Aaron Stahl, rated one of the top 150 seniors in Florida, chose UNC in July over South Florida. He also received interest from Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee and childhood favorite Miami, where his two brothers went to college. Stahl didn't attend camp in Chapel Hill this summer, but he took unofficial visits to campus for Carolina's spring game and for a late summer academic day. He benches 320 pounds, squats 500 and runs the 40 in 5.3 seconds. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is offensive line coach Hal Hunter.
Charlotte (NC) Catholic FB Nick Starcevic, rated one of the top 30 seniors in North Carolina, picked childhood favorite UNC in June over interest from Air Force, Clemson, Duke, Georgia, Miami, South Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. As a fullback in a Wing T-style offense, he gained 930 yards and scored 18 touchdowns last season on just 143 carries. As a linebacker and defensive end, he had 12 sacks and six interceptions, while playing for a 12-4 team at the Class 2A level. A UNC summer camper, Starcevic runs the 40 in 4.8 seconds. He has a 3.6 GPA and a 1,210 SAT score. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is running backs coach Andre' Powell.
"Nick is a throwback," said Charlotte Catholic coach Jim Oddo, a former N.C. State player. "He loves the game of football, he has a blue-collar attitude and his biggest concern is the success of the team. He can run, he can catch and he's an outstanding lead blocker, and he doesn't worry about statistics. I know (the UNC coaches) love him as a football player, but I think they were just as impressed with him as a student and a leader."
Burlington (NC) Cummings WR Brandon Tate, rated one of the top 25 seniors in North Carolina, opted for childhood favorite UNC in June over ECU and West Virginia. Virginia and Virginia Tech also showed interest. As a junior he missed five games for unspecified reasons, but he still managed to score eight touchdowns for a 15-1 team that played in the Class 2A title game for the second year in a row. A UNC summer camper, Tate runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders.
"Brandon is still learning the game, but he's already an exciting receiver and punt returner," Cummings coach Steve Johnson said. "He's also a very good basketball player, and I think his focus on that took away from his football for a long time. But he's an outstanding athlete, and he's developing a very good feel for the game."
Maryville (TN) High QB Cade Thompson, rated one of the top 20 seniors in Tennessee, selected UNC in August over Clemson. Alabama and Mississippi State also showed interest. A three-year starter in a spread offense for one of Tennessee's top programs, Thompson led his team to a 15-0 record and the Class 4A state title in 2002 and a 13-1 mark in 2003. He threw for about 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore, then about 1,500 yards and 14 TDs as a junior. A UNC summer camper, he runs the 40 in 4.7 seconds. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is receivers coach Gunter Brewer.
Greensboro (NC) Dudley FB/LB Kennedy Tinsley, rated one of the top 40 seniors in North Carolina, chose childhood favorite UNC in June over interest from Duke, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. His former teammate, defensive back Martel Thatch, is a freshman for the Tar Heels this season. As a junior, when he served mainly as a blocker for FSU signee Jamaal Edwards, Tinsley rushed 79 times for 472 yards and three touchdowns and had more than 350 receiving yards. He's the feature back for Dudley this fall, and he rushed 27 times for 161 yards in the season opener. A UNC summer camper, he runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds. He has a 4.0 GPA. His main recruiter with the Tar Heels is defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders.
Others Select ACC Programs
Richmond (VA) Hermitage DE Jeffrey Fitzgerald, rated one of the top 10 seniors in Virginia, committed to Virginia over Maryland, Penn State and Virginia Tech. He also had offers from Boston College, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas State, Michigan State, Nebraska, UNC, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Tennessee and West Virginia. His brother Justin is a wide receiver at Ohio. His high school teammate and close friend, quarterback Jameel Sewell, pledged to UVa (located about 45 minutes from both players' homes) in July. A former teammate, receiver Fontel Mines, is a sophomore with the Cavaliers this fall. As a junior, playing defensive end, Fitzgerald had 49 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles for a 9-1 team. A second-team Class 3A all-state selection, he had 11 receptions for 230 yards and four touchdowns as a tight end. Also a basketball and baseball player for Hermitage, he benches 270 pounds, squats 420 and runs the 40 in 4.8 seconds. He has a 2.7 GPA and an 820 SAT score. His main recruiter with the Cavaliers is quarterbacks coach Mike Groh.
Ft. Lauderdale (FL) Cardinal Gibbons QB Mike Greco, rated one of the top 100 seniors in Florida, chose N.C. State over Auburn. He also had offers from Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas State, Minnesota, Rutgers, South Florida and Temple, with some of those schools pursuing him for other positions. He has an uncle who lives in North Carolina (New Bern) and is a big Wolfpack fan. As a junior, Greco threw for 575 yards and seven touchdowns and ran for 450 yards and four scores for a ground-oriented 6-4 team. An NCSU summer camper, he consistently runs the 40 in 4.4 seconds. He has a 3.0 GPA. His main recruiter with the Wolfpack is assistant head coach Doc Holliday.
Atlanta (GA) Westlake LB Taalib Tucker, rated one of the top 50 seniors in Georgia, picked Georgia Tech over Auburn, ECU and Florida. Clemson, UNC, Mississippi State, Ohio State and Oklahoma also showed interest. His cousin Scoonie Penn played basketball for the Buckeyes. As a junior, Tucker had 96 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions despite missing several games with a knee injury. A Georgia Tech summer camper, he benches 400 pounds, squats 650 and runs the 40 in 4.7 seconds. He has a 3.3 GPA and an 840 SAT score and plans to major in architecture. His main recruiter with the Yellow Jackets is tight ends coach Tommie Robinson.
Pflugerville (TX) High QB Todd Walker, rated one of the top 50 seniors in Texas, opted for Georgia Tech over Oklahoma, Purdue, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. He also had offers from Arkansas, Baylor, Colorado, Houston, Kansas State, Texas and others, with many schools pursuing him for other positions. Todd's father, Jim, played tight end for the Red Raiders. His brother Grant plays quarterback for the Boilermakers. Todd said the Georgia Tech coaches promised him that he will be given a chance to play QB, and that the Yellow Jackets won't sign any other players at his position this year. As a junior, Walker rushed for 832 yards, threw for 789 and contributed to 17 touchdowns. He benches 250 pounds and runs the 40 in 4.4 seconds. A possible mid-year enrollee for Tech, he has a 3.9 GPA and a 1,230 SAT score and probably will graduate from high school in December.