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UNC recruiting: 2017 National Signing Day guide

A cheat sheet for the casual fan

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If you’re over 40, you probably remember a time when recruiting wasn’t a media industry, and with rare exception, you learned who the new class of Tar Heels would be when the media guide came out in the fall.

Those days are over.

Today, it’s easy to think that there are chiefly two types of college football fans: those for whom the season ends at the final whistle of the title game, and those for whom that whistle signals only the start to the next phase of the football calendar: recruiting season. It seems there’s hardly room for much in between.

This guide is written on a hunch that there are actually a lot of people who fall somewhere in between. If you’re a fan who’s interested in how the Tar Heels are doing on the football recruiting trail but don’t have the time or the inclination to obsessively follow the hat ceremonies and unpredictable whims of 17 and 18 year old kids you’ve never heard of and have never seen play, think of this as your cheat sheet. With this in your back pocket, you should end up with a pretty good idea of where the Tar Heels’ recruiting stands and what to make of events that happen between now and February 1st, when the vast majority of football recruits will make binding commitments. So with that introduction, here goes nothing.

How many players can the Tar Heels sign in this class? This isn’t as straightforward a question as you might think. By NCAA rules, football teams give out no more than 25 scholarships in a given year, and no more than 85 overall. There are two big exceptions, though.

First, if you took fewer than your allotted 25 the prior year, you can count early enrollees in this year’s class towards the prior year’s allotment. Last year’s class was 22, so in theory UNC could sign 28 players in this year’s class. Second, nearly all football teams have attrition year-to-year (players who decide to stop playing for any reason, or who transfer, etc.), though it’s difficult to predict with precision and does not generally resolve itself before signing day.

If we assume no attrition, the Tar Heels have only 23 scholarships available. Zero attrition scenarios almost never occur, however (the smallest number in the Fedora era is 4), so the best assumption is that UNC will seek to sign a class of between 23-28. Because Fedora has tended to be conservative in his attrition assumptions, a number closer to 23 seems more likely.

How much should I care about a player’s “star rating”? You should care, but not too much. Somewhere along the line we started rating football players the way we rate movies: on a 5-star scale. This is common across a number of different recruiting services, though they don’t always agree with one another and their ratings influence each other. A rational person cannot possibly believe that ratings assigned to high school football players are anything even vaguely resembling science; they’re probably better thought of as a measurement of how popular a given recruit is among major programs.

It would be a mistake to think of that popularity as irrelevant: these are professional coaches that know what they’re doing. If you think you have a football coach who can win big with a collection of 2-star players, you’re deluding yourself. By the same token, the NFL is littered with players who never sniffed a 4 or 5 star rating as high school recruits, and there are 5 star players who fail to meet their potential every season. A good rule of thumb is that you want a class that consists of very few players with ratings of lower than 3 stars, and the more players with 4 and 5 star ratings, the better.

Who are UNC’s “sure things”? In recruiting, the only sure thing is a signature on signing day. But because of the increased emphasis on early enrollment, we have some players locked up. Fedora, like many other coaches, likes to get players who can arrange an early high school graduation to acclimate to college life early, participate in an extra spring practice, and be secured from any last-minute recruiting poachers. The Tar Heels had seven players enroll for the spring semester this year:

1. Jonah Melton, OL (4 stars)

2. Jake Lawler, DE (4 stars)

3. Xach Gill, DT (4 stars)

4. Tre Shaw, DB (4 stars)

5. JT Cauthen, WR (3 stars)

6. Michael Carter, RB (3 stars)

7. Jordon Riley, DT (3 stars)

This is a pretty strong start to a good 2017 recruiting class, and every one of these players is currently a UNC student you don’t have to worry about being seduced by some other program.

Who else can we feel pretty good about? I’ve already warned you that there’s no such thing as a sure thing until there’s a signature on paper, but here are the players that currently say they’re committed to the Tar Heels:

1. CJ Cotman, ATH (4 stars)

2. Tyler Smith, WR (3 stars)

3. Billy Ross, OL (3 stars)

4. Antwuan Branch, RB (3 stars)

5. Caleb Rozar, DB (3 stars). You should be aware that Rozar declared himself “shocked” that DB coach Charlton Warren, Rozar’s primary recruiter, left for Tennessee; that might soften his commitment, but so far there appears to be no reason for panic.

6. Jordan Tucker, OL (3 stars)

7. Brian Anderson, OL (3 stars)

8. Jeremiah Gemmel, LB (3 stars)

9. Marcus McKethan, OL (3 stars)

10. Beau Corrales, WR (3 stars)

11. Kayne Roberts, ATH (2 stars)

So how does that rate? As we stand today, the UNC football recruiting class is considered to be somewhere between the #20 and the #25 class nationally. But there’s a lot left to happen that would affect that perception. This is generally consistent with the range in which UNC has historically recruited.

I’m the panicky type. Can you tell me where the sky is falling? 3-star linebacker Malik Robinson is your guy. He’s a verbal commitment, but after his official visit recently, he made clear he’d be visiting Indiana and Missouri. If that doesn’t strike you as a firm commitment from a guy who theoretically committed last April, you’ve read this correctly.

Who else is still on the board? With the proviso that there is always a chance that the staff is talking to someone they want to keep under the radar (likely because he’s a commitment somewhere else), the players UNC is known to still be actively recruiting are:

1. Devon Hunter, DB (5 stars). The guy is being recruited by everybody, up to and including Alabama. UNC is a genuine consideration with Hunter, but don’t get your hopes up. If it happens, you should start high fiving people. I wouldn’t worry much about whether they understand why.

2. Ameer Speed, DB (4 stars). Any time you can take a defensive back with “Speed” as part of his actual name, you have to be excited. Speed is a big recruit at a position of need for UNC. There’s reason for optimism, but the recent loss of Charlton Warren to Tennessee clouds the picture with Speed. This will be a big signing day decision to watch.

3. A.J. Davis, RB (4 stars). Davis seems to be down to UNC, Louisville and Pitt, though he’s also taking a visit to Oregon. The departure of Elijah Hood may have increased Davis’ interest in UNC and the opportunity to step into an immediate role in Chapel Hill. He had what seems to have been a great visit this past weekend and this is a realistic get for the Tar Heels.

4. Jaquan Henderson, LB (4 stars). Don’t get your hopes up. Every indication is he’s going to Tennessee. It would take a miracle.

5. Dazz Newsome, DB (3 stars). Get excited here. Newsome decommitted from Maryland during his recent official visit to Chapel Hill. That’s a very good sign. Virginia Tech is in the picture for Newsome, but there’s reason to feel optimistic.

6. Tim Jordan, RB (3 stars). If Davis commits to UNC, it’s unclear whether Jordan would still have a spot, but given the loss of Hood, there is probably room for both. Jordan seems to be down to UNC and Tennessee.

Anything else? Not much else between now and signing day. But you should be aware that the robust graduate transfer market is going to be a point of interest for UNC in the offseason. In particular, former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire and former Auburn receiver Stanton Truitt are considered attractive UNC targets as graduate transfers, but they’re not likely to make their decisions known for some time. Here’s a prediction for you, though: whether it’s Zaire or another graduate transfer, UNC’s starting quarterback in the fall of 2017 will be a player not currently on UNC’s roster.

What are UNC’s needs? The primary shortcomings on the UNC roster in terms of numbers are defensive back, running back and quarterback. Any upside surprises in these areas would be especially helpful.

Prediction? Best guess: UNC signs Speed, Davis, Newsome and Jordan, but misses on Hunter and Henderson, and loses Robinson.