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UNC Football Early Signing Day Primer: The Offense

Let’s get you ready for the Early Signing Period.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

The Early Signing Period is two days away and North Carolina has positioned itself to sign a potential top-20 class. With a heavy emphasis on in-state recruits, the staff has received the verbal commitments of 26 prospects. It is on pace to be UNC’s largest recruiting class in over a decade, bringing much-needed depth and talent to a program that played nine games decided by one possession this past season. There is some possible drama that could alter those expectations, but the intent is for the 2020 class to be complete with very few (if any) late additions at the second signing day in February.

Before we get started, here are some numbers to give context to the overall class.

  • 26 verbal commits
  • 15 on offense
  • 11 on defense
  • 11 different 4-star recruits as rated by either ESPN, Rivals, or 247 Sports
  • 15 recruits from North Carolina. That’s the most in-state recruits for UNC this century.
  • 13 of the top-30 prospects in North Carolina, per the 247Sports Composite. No other program has more than four.
  • 6 ESPN300 recruits. That’s the most for UNC since ESPN expanded their rankings in 2012.

We’ll begin with the offense and follow that up with a defensive primer later today. The previews are broken down by position, with various player rankings from the 247Sports Composite. The “star” rating is followed by national, state, and positional rankings. On Wednesday, as each player’s commitment becomes official, we’ll provide real-time updates, expanded recruiting rankings, and give some limited analysis on each prospect.

Quarterback

Jacolby Criswell
6-1/218, Morrilton, AR (4-stars, #269, #2 , #11)

Criswell is North Carolina’s only committed quarterback for 2020, but coaching decisions in recent weeks have opened the door for Arkansas to make a last-minute push. The good news? A flip is not considered to be imminent and Criswell did make it to Chapel Hill for his official visit this past weekend. UNC is in solid position to close the deal.

Running Backs

Elijah Burris
5-10/210, Mt. Holly, NC
247 Sports Composite: 3-stars, #1448, #49, #87

D.J. Jones
5-11/190, Fayetteville, NC
247 Sports Composite: 3-stars, #832, #23, #57

Elijah Green
5-10/190, Roswell, Georgia
247 Sports Composite: 3-stars, #987, #103, #64

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this recruiting class was taking verbal commitments from three running backs. With Michael Carter currently still expected to return, alongside with Javonte Williams and Joshua Henderson, the running back positions don’t have any immediate needs.

Recruiting, though, is about immediate needs and long-term development. This trio likely trends more towards the latter, but this staff may see a diamond in the rough. Remember, Javonte Williams was also a lightly-heralded recruit before gaining 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a sophomore. Most interesting to my untrained eye is the similar size (except for Burris’ bulkiness) among the three.

Wide Receivers

Josh Downs
5-10/165, Suwanee, Georgia
247 Sports Composite: 4-stars, #210, #22, #36

Stephen Gosnell
6-2/200, Pilot Mountain, North Carolina
247 Composite: 3-stars, #942, #29, #141

Tylee Craft
6-4/180, Sumter, South Carolina
247 Composite: 3-stars, #831, #11, #126

Ray Rose
6-1/204, Belmont, NC
247 Composite: 3-stars, #404, #14, #66

With the success, and likely return, of the entire North Carolina receiving corps next year, this position doesn’t seem to be greatest area of need. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo, though, wants a deep roster with as many as 12 available wide receivers at any given time.

There are currently 19 WRs listed on UNC’s roster. By my count, only 10 of those were recruited scholarship players. After graduation, these four additions will raise next year’s total to 13 scholarship wide receivers. A varying mix of size and speed fills depth and skill needs that should develop into solid contributions over the next few seasons.

Tight End

Kendall Karr
6-4/230, Cramerton, NC
247 Composite: 3-stars, #679, #17, #28

John Copenhaver
6-3/210, Roswell, Georgia
247 Composite: 3-stars, #438, #44, #16

Jefferson Boaz
6-8/230 Pilot Mountain, North Carolina
247 Composite: 3-stars, #894, #27, #40

Top recruiter Tim Brewster is known for his work with tight ends. That reputation, combined with years of minimal receiving production from that position, means nobody should be surprised that UNC targeted three tight ends for this cycle. Just temper any immediate expectations. Soon-to-be rising seniors Garrett Walston and Noah Turner will return, so playing time may be limited as the three freshmen learn UNC’s system. Of note, Boaz was recruited as a TE but may end up at another position.

Offensive Line

Malik McGowan - (Guard)
6-3/347 Charlotte, North Carolina
247 Composite: 3-stars, #1348, #45, #83

Jonathan Adorno - (Guard)
6-4/290 Pilot Rolesville, North Carolina
247 Composite: 3-stars, #777, #21, #49

Trey Zimmerman - (Tackle)
6-6/294 Roswell, Georgia
247 Composite: 3-stars, #599, #65, #48

Cayden Baker - (Tackle)
6-6/260 Fort Myers, Florida
247 Composite: 3-stars, #713, #97, #53

On the surface, this looks like a rather average offensive line class, but consider two things.

First, the offensive line is the hardest position to project. It often takes years for an OL prospect to flash his potential. For example, UNC’s William Barnes was a top-100 recruit in 2018 and struggled to crack the regular rotation this past season. With four additions, it’s clear that building depth in the trenches is the highest priority for Mack. Two are in-state pick-ups, and one flipped from N.C. State (Adorno). This class hits multiple strategic objectives.

Second, the size of both tackles deserves a mention. Only four offensive linemen on UNC’s roster are listed as being taller than both Zimmerman and Baker. One of those, Charlie Heck, is graduating. An old basketball adage – you can’t teach size – is also applicable when recruiting the offensive and defensive line.

Summary

Of note, two offensive recruits are four-star players on the ESPN300 list. WR Josh Downs and QB Jacolby Criswell hold those honors. Wide receiver Tyree Craft also garnered 4-stars from the network, while WR Ray Rose has a four-star ranking from Rivals. Despite those accolades, expectations should be slightly tempered.

The offensive side of this class addresses depth and development over the next few seasons. There are very few, if any, immediate impact prospects. Part of that is attributed to UNC potentially returning 10 of 11 starters. Without much playing time available, the staff focused on targets that addressed specific needs and locked them up early in the cycle. Only three offensive players committed after July. Cayden Baker’s commitment was sandwiched between N.C. State flips Stephen Gosnell and Jonathon Adorno.

In theory, that allows the staff to begin focusing on the 2021 class much earlier than UNC fans are accustomed to. If UNC’s upward trajectory continues, both on and off the field, that strategy could have UNC knocking on the door of a top-10 class next season.