From 2008 to 2014, the years that Butch Davis had an impact either recruiting, coaching, or both, UNC’s football team had multiple players taken in the NFL draft every year, with at least one of those players being a first round pick in all of those years but one. Now, we all know that the program and the University are better off having left Davis behind and moving in a new direction with Larry Fedora, but the talent level of UNC teams seemed to have fallen off in recent years, with recent defenses being notably worse than the Tar Heel teams of the 2000s, for example.
The last two years, there have been no Tar Heels drafted. Several players have been discussed as potential draft picks, such as 2015’s Quinshad Davis, Shakeel Rashad, and, most prominently, Landon Turner, the last of whom made an active roster in the NFL despite being an undrafted free agent rookie. There seem to be two or three primary reasons for this comparative lack of NFL interest: First, several recent UNC alumni have underwhelmed in the NFL after being high draft picks: Quinton Coples has underperformed relative to draft position, Hakeem Nicks flamed out after a very good start, Eric Ebron’s first two seasons were plagued by inconsistency and drops (though his third season is showing promise), Kentwan Balmer’s career was over almost before it started, etc. That’s not to say there aren’t Heels having success in the NFL right now; Giovani Bernard, Russell Bodine, and Sylvester Williams are making great careers, among others. But it’s not unreasonable to think there’s beginning to be a stigma among NFL people about UNC players’ abilities at the next level.
Second, UNC’s football team itself was not extremely successful in the early 2010’s, never winning more than eight games from 2010 to 2014. The best scouting departments in the NFL don’t really care about records, but not every NFL team has that kind of quality. This has also likely hampered Tar Heel prospects’ draftability.
Third, Butch Davis was a great recruiter with really good, established, connections. Larry Fedora has shown himself to be an active recruiter, but he was a pretty new head coach when he arrived in Chapel Hill, and his network was still growing and solidifying. The talent he was able to bring in didn’t really compare to Davis’ peak years.
The good news for Heels fans is that almost all of that is changing, with:
- A 2015 record of 11-3, including appearances in the ACC Championship and the Russell Athletic Bowl, a postseason game people have actually heard of.
- There is a lot of draftable talent on the Tar Heels right now. If the NFL draft was tomorrow, Elijah Hood would almost certainly be drafted no later than the fifth round, Ryan Switzer would likely be a late-round pick, Mack Hollins could be drafted, MJ Stewart would probably be drafted late, and Caleb Peterson could be drafted. There are several other maybes: Naz Jones, Des Lawrence, Bug Howard, TJ Logan... In the future, Mitch Trubisky and Andre Smith are clearly NFL-caliber players, among others. Make no mistake, NFL people are taking notice. I saw scouts from several teams at the UNC-Virginia Tech game, having braved the hurricane to see players on UNC’s team play. UNC is beginning to be thought of as big-time. In addition, Fedora’s classes are beginning to pick up after the NCAA cloud has begun to dissipate. The 2018 class is really, really promising. Having Gene Chizik, Auburn’s former head coach, certainly doesn’t hurt, but it does look like Fedora is establishing his recruiting cred.
We’ll see how the 2017 draft goes, but more drafted players can only mean good things for the future of Tar Heel football, and it does seem that Fedora, for any faults he may have, does have the program headed that way.