INDIANAPOLIS — North Carolina has 12 players here for the NFL scouting combine - more than national champion Auburn, runner-up Oregon, talent-rich Southern Cal and every other school.
Too bad the Tar Heels did not have all of them last season.
The NCAA investigation that rocked Butch Davis' program resulted in the resignation of assistant coach John Blake and the suspension of many of the Tar Heels' top players - including seven of the dozen at the combine - and derailed the Tar Heels' championship hopes.
As he bumps into teammates this week at Lucas Oil Stadium who were ineligible in the fall, UNC quarterback T.J. Yates can't help but wonder what might have been.
"It's a little frustrating. We knew we had a lot of talent going into the season," Yates said. "Throughout the season we had a lot of adversity. But we still managed to have a very good season. It was very encouraging for all the guys that did play.
"But when you look back at it from an overall standpoint, all the guys that are here that weren't allowed to play, you start to play the what-if game a little bit."
UNC finished 8-5 and closed the season with a 30-27 double-overtime win over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
But the season started under a cloud of controversy after the NCAA launched an investigation last summer into players receiving impermissible benefits from agents. The probe expanded to include allegations of academic fraud involving a tutor.
Defensive tackle Marvin Austin was kicked off the team, while receiver Greg Little and defensive end Robert Quinn were ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA's reinstatement committee.
Little, a senior from Durham, was determined to have received nearly $5,000 in extra benefits. Those included diamond earrings and travel accommodations to the Bahamas, Washington, D.C., and Miami, where Little joined Austin at the infamous South Beach party that first drew the NCAA's attention.
"It was tough to know that essentially I started the whole investigation. That was one of the things that was very hard to deal with," Little said Friday. "It was something that will haunt me forever to know that my team could have won the national championship [had] I played along with them."
As the probe widened, officials tried to sort out which players were caught up in the agent dealings and which were involved in the academic scandal. Safeties Deunta Williams and Da'Norris Searcy sat out four and three games, respectively, while cornerback Kendric Burney missed the first six.
Thirteen players were held out of the first game - a 30-24 loss to LSU in Atlanta.
"From week to week we had no idea who was going to be playing. We're waiting to get on the bus, and there's a couple guys on the phone waiting to see if they could get on the bus," Yates said. "And these weren't just any normal guys. These were our starters."
The longest suspensions went to the Tar Heels' best players. Quinn, Austin, Little and Burney are listed among the top 99 draft prospects by the Sporting News' Russ Lande. Quinn will be a top-five pick, according to the NFL Network's Mike Lombardi.
Little and the others will try to convince NFL coaches and general managers here that they are not bad people but used bad judgment.
"It was a very pivotal point and a defining moment in my life where I said, 'Hey, this is not who you are. This is something that you've done. You've made a mistake,'" Little said. "But you have to move on, and that's what I'm doing. This has definitely been a great start to my path of redemption."
Regardless of how he performs here, Yates said he already has proven a lot.
"I'd challenge anybody to go look somewhere else for some worse adversity in a team and a program because we had it from all angles as far as NCAA and academic stuff," Yates said. "And on top of that, we had a ton of injuries. There were times we were stretching our depth charts in the middle of games to fifth-string running back. Coach Davis would look on the sideline asking if anyone could run down on kickoff.
"It got pretty hectic at some points. But I don't think any other team in the country went through what we did, and we still salvaged a very good season out of it."
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