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Why Tony Grimes’ commitment is so important to UNC Football

National exposure, a return to the Tidewater, and Dre Bly

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Military Bowl - North Carolina v Temple Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yesterday, UNC received a verbal commitment from defensive back Tony Grimes. Considered the #1 overall DB in the country by ESPN, Rivals, and the 247 Sports Composite rankings, Grimes’ pledge marks a massive shift in UNC’s football recruiting fortunes. Even before stepping on the field, he may have just altered the future trajectory of Tar Heel football.

Already owning a top-5 class before yesterday’s commitment, UNC wasn’t exactly struggling on the trail this cycle. All 17 UNC recruits for 2021 own a four- or five-star evaluation from Rivals, 247 Sports, or ESPN. They already have a program record 12 ESPN 300 commits.

Quarterback Drake Maye flipped from Alabama. Linebacker Ra Ra Dillworth also chose the Heels over the Tide. Prior to switching allegiances, offensive guard Jared Wilson was a Georgia commit. Recent defensive end commit Jahvaree Ritzie also trolled Georgia at his announcement by first revealing a UGA shirt before removing it in favor of Carolina Blue garment. Mack and staff were already on pace to complete one of UNC’s best recruiting classes in the internet-era, if not in UNC history.

And yet, should Grimes’ commitment stick, he will arguably be the most nationally renowned recruit for UNC since Ronald Curry in 1998. Only Marvin Austin in 2007 held a higher rating in the 247 Sports Composite, established in the early 2000’s. Desmond Evans last season was a major in-state coup, but there was never really any other competition in that race. Let’s look at the ways why Tony Grimes is different.

National Exposure/Respect

This seems obvious, but it should not be underplayed. When Mack came back, very few media outlets and pundits applauded the move. It was thought to be a desperate hire, including by plenty of local media in the Triangle. (Side note: We were not one of those outlets.)

Then he salvaged the 2019 class by flipping seven recruits from other P5 programs, including quarterback Sam Howell. A top-20 class followed last year, with a strong emphasis on the defensive line and 14 in-state recruits. It was an improvement, but still on the periphery of true national exposure as Mack laid the foundations for his wall around North Carolina. Even Desmond Evans’ commitment, though highly publicized, was largely chalked up to the fact that Mack Brown was “new” and that Evans was from Sanford, NC.

The momentum has continued with the 2021 cycle, but once again, 14 in-state recruits have tempered some of the excitement on the national level. Undoubtedly impressive, but also not surprising to anyone without an understanding of how pitiful UNC’s in-state recruiting was over the last decade. In-state schools are expected to land in-state players.

Grimes, however, is the first five-star out-of-state recruit to pick the Heels in a true head-to-head battle over traditional powerhouses like Ohio State and Georgia. If the Heels want to continue to haul in top-10 classes, they have to rely on recruits like Grimes. Especially when the North Carolina high school recruiting scene doesn’t have 18 recruits with a four or five-star ranking in the 247 Sports Composite. (FWIW, Rivals lists 14 so-rated recruits, while ESPN lists 26. Always remember, recruiting is weird).

The UNC coaching staff’s recruiting strategy isn’t a secret. Focus on the in-state kids for talent and depth and build a footprint from Washington D.C. down to northern Florida to target specific needs or elite talent. With every North Carolina-based program effectively fighting for UNC’s leftovers inside the state, the Heels are now targeting programs who have encroached on their territory in recent years.

Virginia Tech, Clemson, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, and Alabama all lost out on recruits to Mack Brown’s staff in the last 12 months. Flipping three N.C. State commits in the 2019 and 2020 classes were the first warning salvos on the recruiting trail. They survived surprise attacks from Arkansas and Florida for four-stars Jacolby Criswell and Clyde Pinder. However, persuading Grimes to push his original commitment date up from December 1st to June 30th in the middle of a global pandemic was a full-on artillery barrage preparing the battlefield for the next few campaigns.

The 757

Note: For brevity in this section, all four or five-star recruits will simply be labeled “elite”

Grimes’ is actually the first recruit from the Tidewater region, also known as the “757” in reference to the area code, to commit to UNC since Mack returned. In fact, he’s the first Tar Heel recruit from the region since Dazz Newsome, a three-star recruit, in 2017. Before that, it was Travis Hughes in 2011.

Over the last four cycles, including the current 2021 class, the state of Virginia has claimed 33 elite recruits. Eleven of those, or 33%, played for a high school in the Tidewater. Only two have stayed in-state. There was even more talent in 2017, when the Tidewater accounted for seven of 14 elite recruits. Just one of those stayed in-state. For fun, I checked the distance and time of a few P5 programs from Grimes’ hometown of Princess Anne, VA.

University of Virginia — 177 miles, with an estimate travel time of 2:50
North Carolina State University — 201 miles, travel time of 3:12
Duke University — 203 miles, travel time of 3:21
University of North Carolina — 211 miles, travel time of 3:33
University of Maryland — 222 miles, travel time of 3:34
Virginia Tech — 322 miles, travel time of 5:03

Those are the closest competitors for Power 5 talent, and UNC has nabbed exactly three such players since 2011. Simply put, for a talent-rich region that’s three hours and 32 minutes from Chapel Hill (as of 8PM last night on Google Maps), previous staffs have struggled to build a consistent pipeline. That includes the Butch Davis-era. At best, that’s troublesome. Maybe a little unlucky. At worst, that’s recruiting malpractice.

For context, Charlotte, NC is 139 miles away and just 60 minutes closer. The Tidewater should be a natural extension of UNC’s in-state strategy, but it’s been largely ignored. The crazy part is the majority of those players are largely going well outside of what most would consider reasonable traveling distances.

From 2018-2020 there were eight elite recruits in the Tidewater. Those eight each committed to a different school — Florida, TCU, Penn State, Clemson, Auburn**, Virginia Tech, Maryland, and Ohio State. Seven of those schools are noticeably farther away from the 757 than UNC, with Maryland being the lone exception. And yes, distance can play a factor in a recruit’s decision, even more so with the world being what it is today.

Grimes explicitly stated that yesterday when he said, “...then I started thinking more about it that I thought I could be great at UNC, and it was only three hours away so I could get back to my family.”

Of the three in the 2021, UNC nabbed one (Grimes) and presumably leads for another (DE/OLB George Wilson, who announces next week). LSU is the heavy favorite for the third. There is absolutely no reason UNC should not be a regular presence in the region from here to eternity.

**Note: The Auburn recruit was Cam’Ron Kelly, who transferred to UNC before taking a snap at Auburn.

Dre Bly

In five years, we may all look back on this recruitment as Dre Bly’s coming out party. Despite less than two years in the college ranks, Bly’s on-the-field reputation and recent publicity was reason enough to bring him on staff. A dynamic personality and love for North Carolina was expected to cover-up missteps as he learned the off-the-field coaching demands, like recruiting. Being a native of the aforementioned Tidewater/757 region certainly helped. All those traits were on display in this recruitment.

Recruiting players like Tony Grimes are where many fans expected him to make his mark. Battles like these were why fans clamored for years to bring him back to Chapel Hill. To his credit, he never hid the fact that he wanted to get into coaching, saying as much on an Carolina Insider Podcast back in August of 2018. This was something he wanted to do. It didn’t just fall to him as a back-up option.

Yet, despite his pedigree and desire, Bly still needed to provide results. He’d helped with a few other recruits, specifically his nephew Josh Downs, a four-star wide receiver, but most hoped for something “bigger” . They don’t get much bigger than a defensive back of Tony Grimes’ level.

Truthfully, this may be a perfect storm of position familiarity, regional pride, and on-the-field reputation. Inside Carolina’s Ross Martin looked at those factors yesterday. Grimes, his father, and multiple analysts were adamant that Dre Bly was the lynchpin in the entire process. Whether it was his connection to reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, or an ability to build relationships outside of football, Bly deserves all the credit for closing this deal. 247 Sports recruiting analyst Brian Dohn didn’t mince words on the Inside Carolina podcast when he stated, “At the end of the day, if Dre Bly isn’t at Carolina, then neither is Tony Grimes.”

With all the favorable elements involved, it’s fair to be cautious about future recruiting battles. None of that, though, takes away from the major boost to Bly’s burgeoning resume. If he can harness that momentum, and I’d bet a rather large wager that he will, then the Heels will reap those benefits in the next few cycles.