NCAA investigators looking into the University of North Carolina's football program have interviewed defensive tackle Marvin Austin and wide receiver Greg Little, The News & Observer has learned.
Sources familiar with the situation have said the two players were interviewed in connection with possible improper involvement with sports agents. North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour confirmed Thursday that the NCAA had been to Chapel Hill to speak with athletes at the school but declined to provide further details.
He said the school is cooperating fully with the NCAA. He told The Associated Press that the investigation began with a phone call from the NCAA. NCAA representatives met with players Monday and Tuesday, according to a source.
NCAA rules prohibit athletes from accepting gifts from sports agents or their representatives. Athletes are prevented from making any kind of agreement with an agent about current or future representation.
For an NCAA athlete, penalties for improper involvement with an agent can be as small as being required to repay the benefit. They can also be as serious as permanent ineligibility.
A school also can be penalized if an ineligible athlete has participated in a competition. Those penalties can include vacating the games in question from a school's record.
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn, who said the organization doesn't comment on pending or potential investigations, said that in general the severity of a penalty depends on an athlete's level of involvement with an agent.
Efforts to reach UNC football coach Butch Davis were unsuccessful.
Losing either Austin or Little for any period could have a significant impact on the field for North Carolina. The Tar Heels generally are considered a preseason top 25 team because of several highly regarded players who decided to return for their senior seasons, including Austin and Little.
Walterfootball.com, a site devoted to the NFL draft, projects Austin, defensive end Robert Quinn and safety Deunta Williams as first-round picks. Linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter are projected as second-round picks. The site lists Little as the No. 10 wide receiver prospect in the draft.
Little is perhaps the Tar Heels' biggest playmaker on an offense that struggled last season. He led North Carolina as a junior with 62 receptions, 724 receiving yards and five touchdown catches.
Austin, who made 42 tackles and four sacks last season, is the driving force in the middle of a highly regarded defense, occupying tacklers so Sturdivant and Carter can chase the ball.
Attempts to reach Austin and Little were unsuccessful. As of Thursday evening, after the investigation became public, Austin had shut down his Twitter page; he had been known for frequent updates on Twitter that included his announcement on Jan. 1 that he "will be a tarheel in 2010."
ESPN.com reported that Austin was asked about having been seen driving the vehicle of former Tar Heels defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, a first-round pick in the 2008 draft. Balmer was a senior at North Carolina when Austin was a freshman.
Balmer's agent, Gary Wichard of California-based Pro Tect Management, said by phone Friday that he has never met with Austin.
"I've never talked to him about representing him," Wichard told The News & Observer. "I've never gone down there, and I never will."
Wichard said, though, that Balmer has spent much of the offseason training in Chapel Hill with the blessing of Mike Singletary, his coach with the San Francisco 49ers. Wichard said Balmer and Austin are the best of friends - like a big brother and little brother - but said he doesn't know anything about the investigation.
Wichard said he doesn't think Balmer has spoken with NCAA investigators, although he is not certain.
"I really don't know what's going on down there," Wichard said.
As a high school senior, Austin made a big splash for Davis when he signed with the Tar Heels out of Ballou High in Washington, D.C. Austin was rated the No. 1 defensive tackle in the nation by Rivals.com, one of the most highly regarded football recruits in school history.
Little also gave Davis' recruiting reputation a boost on his first signing day when he withdrew his commitment from Notre Dame and signed with the Tar Heels. A former Durham Hillside player with excellent physical ability, Little has switched back and forth between running back and wide receiver during his career, finally settling in as a wideout in 2009.
Staff writers J.P. Giglio and Caulton Tudor contributed to this report.
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