In the wake of North Carolina's debacle against East Carolina there have been opinions flying about what exactly ails these Tar Heels. Is it the coaching? The scheme? The real estate between the players' ears? Since this is the internet there is no shortage of ideas, some of which have a lot of merit all things considered. And while I wouldn't discount things like scheming, play calling or the complete lack of fundamentals, there biggest reason is what it tends to always be in college football.
It's the recruiting, stupid.
Presented for your consideration is this chart of UNC's past five recruiting classes plus the current one presently under construction.
|Recruiting Year||Scout Rank||Commits||Currently on Roster|
I honestly could stop here and it pretty straightforward why 2013 will end up being a transition season of sorts. Note that I am using the Scout.com rankings for this exercise. Those rankings are by no means sacrosanct nor would I consider them always "on the money." It does provide a general gauge for how UNC's talent is viewed.
The 2009, 2010 and 2011 classes were recruited and signed by Butch Davis who was fired just before the 2011 season and the keys to the program handed to Everett Withers. The 2012 class was mostly recruited by Davis and Withers with Larry Fedora coming on board in December to basically close it out the following February. By and large, Fedora was stuck with whatever he had been dealt at that point. Fedora did pursue some players late in the cycle but much of that class was written in stone when he showed up. The full weight of the coaching shuffle and the NCAA business made the 2012 class the worst of the six years listed here according to Scout.com. Larry Fedora's first full recruiting cycle at UNC was the 2013 class which came in at #29. That's a decent group but only included 18 players. The 2012 and 2013 classes have been restricted by the NCAA penalties which has UNC operating with five fewer scholarships starting in 2012. The 2014 season will be the last 80 scholarship season for the Tar Heels. Out of the recruiting classes from 2009-13, UNC has 69 players currently on the roster out of a possible 80 scholarship slots available.
At first glance, it is important to note that UNC has retained only a small number of players as either fourth or fifth year players in the program. To be fair, the 2009 class was loaded with talent. Scout had it as the #6 class overall and it is not surprising that many of those players would have seen action as true freshmen or gone to the NFL as fourth year juniors. Some of the players from that class who went through in four years or less are Travis Bond, Brennan Williams, Jhey Boyd, Erik Highsmith, Donte Paige-Moss, Jared McAdoo, Kevin Reddick and Joshua Adams. The only three players left are Bryn Renner, A.J. Blue and Terry Shankle. This is not a criticism of anyone. If you bring in good talent then said talent is going to see the field sooner rather than later. In some cases those players are gone to the NFL in three years or just play four and are done.
The 2010 class, on the other hand, is a different story. The 2010 season marked the beginning of the NCAA issues and the impact was immediate. For starters, the messy way the season unfolded with 16 players initially being held out meant there were depth issues across the board. As a result, it was necessary to put freshmen on the field that would have probably redshirted had the full roster been intact. The 2010 UNC team had a lot of talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But because some of those individuals were held out, players like Jabari Price, Tre Boston and Kareem Martin were put on the field as true freshmen when it is possible that may not have been the case. Then there are issues like five star offensive lineman T.J. Leifheit who was never truly healthy or four star DT Brandon Willis who committed to UNC, transferred to UCLA then back to UNC then back to UCLA again. Gio Bernard also came in 2010 and is now in the NFL. Of the 21 commits in the class of 2010, only ten are left on the roster, five seniors and five redshirt juniors. Among the contributors in that group are Martin, Boston, Price, Sean Tapley, Tim Jackson, Darius Lipford, Russell Bodine, Nick Appel and James Hurst.
The 2011 class marked the last complete(i.e. non-sanctioned) class with a fair amount of talent in it. Davis signed 25 players, 19 of which are still on the roster. This class included Sylvester Williams as a JUCO transfer who is now in the NFL. Of the key contributors in this group you have Brandon Ellerbe, Romar Morris, Norkeithus Otis, Tim Scott, Travis Hughes, Landon Turner, Kiaro Holts, Eric Ebron Jack Tabb and T.J. Thorpe. Marquise Williams is also a member of the 2011 recruiting class but does not play much for obvious reasons.
At this point, UNC is operating with most of their key contributors coming from the 2010 and 2011 class plus fifth year seniors Renner, Blue and Shankle. That is roughly 20 or so players who are mostly starters and probably should be given their experience. Basically North Carolina doesn't have a ton of experience right now and even among those players, the talent is a mixed bag. UNC has filled out some slots by using walk-ons like Jeff Schoettmer who is tied for the team lead in tackles through four games. That isn't saying walk-ons are bad. There are times you can find a hidden gem with a walk-on or JUCO player. There are also times when it points to potential issues. This might be one of those cases.
The low point in recruiting amid the NCAA scandal came with the 2012 class. This was the class started by Davis, built through the season by Withers and then completed by Fedora. It is the lowest ranked class in six years ranked #41 according to Scout. This class is mostly intact on the current roster and account for the sophomores and redshirt freshmen. Among the players in this class whose names would stick out to you are Quinshad Davis, Junior Gnonkonde, Caleb Peterson, Shakeel Rashad(out for the season with an injury) and Jon Heck.
Now if UNC is relying mostly on 20 or so players from the 2009-2011 classes to be major contributors then what does it mean if the 2012 class is weak? It usually means, the rest of the gaps are being filled by largely inexperienced and possibly underdeveloped or average players. This results in a lack of quality depth across the board. Most of this class is still on the roster but through four games it is painfully obvious not many of them have truly broken through to make an impact. It is possible they develop into solid players and that almost needs to be case since without them UNC would continue to be somewhat young.
The 2013 class, the current freshmen group, hasn't made an impact but that is clearly intentional. This class, Fedora's first full cycle as UNC coach, was small with only 18 players but had some potential according to Scout. There were some nice pickups, especially on the defensive side of the ball. DT Greg Webb, DE Dajaun Drennon and S Desmond Lawrence are all four star recruits ranked in the top 30 at their position nationally. RB T.J. Logan was one of the better backs in North Carolina running for over 500 yards in the 3-A state title game. And not a single one of them has seen the field this season. Logan has been injured or he would probably be out there since UNC's running game is struggling to move the football. The rest of these and many others in the class? The assumption can only be that they are being redshirted with the notable exception of Khris Francis and Ryan Switzer. With this class Fedora is willing to sit on some freshmen talent in an effort to build for the future.
At least that is the hope anyway. As the chart notes, the 2014 class is currently ranked #16 overall. It remains to be seen if that will hold given the nature of football recruiting. However, it is probably a safe bet UNC comes away with a top 25 class and a crop of good players. One of those is Charlotte Catholic running back Elijah Hood who has stated he will enroll in January after de-committing from Notre Dame a few weeks ago. Hood is set to be joined by a top shelf offensive linemen in Bentley Spain and four star DE Jeremiah Clarke. Based on the current make-up of the freshman class and the incoming group, the future looks bright even if it doesn't seem like it now.
What is happening now is just the painful transition that occurs from a coaching change coupled with an NCAA scandal that included the loss of 15 scholarships. This has hampered recruiting both in terms of numbers and in the living battles coaches must fight against negative recruiting. While UNC has experienced players they are players who have seen three head coaches since they showed up in Chapel Hill. The program and schemes being used have changed repeatedly. In some respects while UNC's juniors and seniors may have 3-5 years of experience being in a college football program, they don't have 3-5 years experience with the same head coach or philosophies on offense/defense. The constant flux in the coaching staff is bound to stifle player development. In some cases players get moved to different positions or asked to be utilized in a different manner. The lack of consistency is at least a factor when looking the extent to which the players and team have progressed, especially with the older classes. All of these factors matter and combine everything into one big pot you end up with a team that might struggle on the football field for a season or maybe even two.
There is a great need for patience right now. That's a tough one considering UNC football fans have been patience for over a decade now waiting for the return to the hay days of Mack Brown. It is also difficult in an age of instant gratification. UNC is still dealing with NCAA penalties, a transition of coaches and not to mention general turmoil that all programs go though in the form of normal attrition. It might be bad now. It might only get a little better next season. But by the time Larry Fedora gets a team full of his classes and the NCAA penalties end, the program should be off and running.