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Mack Brown is building a recruiting wall around North Carolina

10 months, 22 in-state recruits. Mack Brown is displaying his architecture skills as he builds that recruiting wall.

Gonzaga v North Carolina Photo by Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images

North Carolina currently has 23 verbal commitments for their 2020 recruiting class. Over half of those commitments reside inside the state of the North Carolina. Of those 23 recruits, 12 have verbally pledged to stay close to home and continue their college careers. That number could increase prior to Early Signing Period in December.

Those numbers are not an aberration or one-year wonder: Of last year’s 24 signees, 10 came from North Carolina high schools. Eight of those committed and signed after Brown was named head coach. Some quick math confirms that Brown has now signed or received the verbal commitment of 20 new recruits from North Carolina in just under 10 months on the job, giving UNC 22 NC recruits over the last two years (WR Welton Spottsville and LS Drew Little had committed to Larry Fedora and stayed when Mack took the job).

To put that in perspective, after receiving Ja’Qurious Conley’s commitment last week, Mack Brown and his staff have signed or received the commitment of more in-state recruits in their first 262 days than the program received from 2016-2018 combined. That is not a joke and is not meant to denigrate the prior staff. Those are just the bottom-line numbers. In fact, North Carolina hasn’t had double-digit in-state recruits since 2011. Fedora never signed more than eight in-state recruits in a single season.

That stretch is largely an anomaly as UNC had 10 or more in-state recruits six times from 1999-2011. Using the 247Sports database we can count the number of North Carolina high school recruits that signed Letters of Intent all the way back to 1999. Fully acknowledging some older commitment lists might have some inaccuracies and that some players never made it to Chapel Hill, it’s the best we can go on. I broke the years according to the head coach at the time.

Mack Brown (2019-Present)
2020: 12 (and counting)
2019: 10 (Drew Little and Welton Spottsville were originally with Fedora)
Total: 22 (and counting)

Larry Fedora (2012-2018)
2018: 6
2017: 5
2016: 6
2015: 7
2014: 8
2013: 7
2012: 6
Total: 45

Butch Davis/Everett Withers (2011)
2011: 13

Butch Davis (2007-2010)
2010: 8
2009: 14
2008: 4
2007: 9
Total: 35

John Bunting (2001-2006)
2006: 14
2005: 9
2004: 7
2003: 5
2002: 10
2001: 11 (according to 2001 media guide)
Total: 56

Carl Torbush (1998-2000
2000: 11
1999: 8
Total: 19* (Not counting 1998)

There are several ways to digest that data. Without going too far down memory lane, it was clear that Davis and Bunting enjoyed success with in-state recruiting. Both had multiple years with 10+ in-state commitments and a few years falling just short with nine. Only Bunting had consecutive years of 10+ in-state commits, and that only happened once. In fairness to Fedora, the Heels did have some scholarship restrictions in his first few seasons stemming from violations during the Davis era coupled with an NCAA cloud.

However, none of that matches what Mack has done in his first 10 months. The Heels are on track for consecutive years of 10+ in-state recruits for just the second time this century. If nobody decommits and the Heels land ESPN’s #2 defensive end in the nation, Desmond Evans, then UNC would land a minimum of 23 high school recruits from North Carolina over the 2019 and 2020 classes. Evans is currently believed to favor UNC as his college destination.

That number ties the most in-state recruits over a two-year period since at least 1999. John Bunting (2005-06) brought 23 in-state recruits to Chapel Hill over a two-year period, but he did it in his final season at the school. Mack is on pace to match that number with his first two classes. That probably speaks to Brown’s philosophy about in-state recruiting as much as it does anyone else’s failures, but it doesn’t make the results any less impressive or exciting.

Even more perplexing is that Brown’s staff hasn’t done this by just throwing offers to every recruit in the state just to boost those numbers. Shawn Krest of the North State Journal dove into the numbers last week. You can read his analysis here (and I strongly recommend that you do), but the takeaway is that Brown is simply winning recruiting battles that the Heels often lost over the last decade.

The reasons for this success are multi-faceted and deserve their own space for another time, but the bigger question that should be asked is, “Why does this matter?”

There’s a healthy debate to be had about the importance of in-state recruits and in-state recruiting. Does a recruiting “wall” really exist? Is it beneficial? There are points and counterpoints on either side, but North Carolina is a different kind of state when it comes to football. Understanding the uniqueness helps provide context for why in-state recruiting matters.

It is inarguable the state has a long-history of high-caliber talent, but the depth of talent doesn’t rival Georgia, Florida, or Texas on an annual basis. That lack of depth can lead some coaches to look outside the state’s borders for mid-level talent when the state suffers a “down” year. That strategy makes sense, but it can also cause problems when that top-tier talent is available.

The coaching community is a naturally tight-knit fraternity, but North Carolina’s coaching culture enhances those relationships to levels not seen in most states. It is abnormally tight-knit, territorial, competitive and fraternal. That means that if you ignore a program for three years because their talent doesn’t quite stack up to out-of-state talent, then don’t expect an easy time when that school gets a top-tier recruit and out-of-state ACC rivals come calling, along with the SEC and B1G powerhouses.

There isn’t enough talent in North Carolina to “big time” the high school programs if they lack players. There’s a special pride about not just being from North Carolina, but from specific regions or towns. Sure, everyone thinks their state is “special”, but having lived in three of this country’s four time zones, I can expertly attest that our state is built differently.

That carries over to recruiting. In North Carolina, if you don’t make an effort to reach out to (or accept) a few in-state recruits in the down years, a program doesn’t really stand a chance in the good years. Loyalty, relationships, and consistency go further than just labeling yourself the flagship university and expecting recruits and their families to commit. Mack understands that and we are all witnessing it play out in real time.

It’s part of the reason Brown asks players to stay in North Carolina if they don’t come to UNC. The high school football culture isn’t quite on the level of Texas, Georgia, or Florida but it’s ain’t exactly struggling for relevancy either. Players staying inside the borders, even if they aren’t in Chapel Hill, is ultimately good for business.

For 2020, those efforts have earned commitments for the Heels from 4 of the top 10 players in North Carolina according to 247 Sports’ organic rankings, and 5 of the top-15 in their composite rankings. ESPN also lists UNC with 5 of the state’s top 15 players, while Rivals lists 3 of the top-10 and 4 of the top-15. No other school has more than 3 recruits in the top-15 across any of the recruiting services. That program is SEC member South Carolina.

To be clear, healthy in-state recruiting doesn’t guarantee success. Otherwise, John Bunting would still be the coach. Other factors are involved. Elite out-of-state talent is still needed. Good coaching. Player development. Fan support. Investment from the athletic department. All the usual caveats apply.

Games still have to be played. Peaks and valleys have to be traversed. Fully acknowledged. None of that changes the fact that UNC football is just more fun when in-state recruits help construct that mythical recruiting wall.

(This has been updated to include data from 2001, using old media guides on UNC’s archive website. Our readers are the best).