CHAPEL HILL — Larry Fedora wasn’t addressing his players at North Carolina, and he wasn’t addressing his coaching staff, either. But already, in his second month as the Tar Heels’ football coach, this was one of Fedora’s most important speeches.
It was “junior day” at UNC – which happened also to be the day of the Tar Heels’ basketball game against Duke at the Smith Center on Feb. 8 – and some of the best football prospects in North Carolina had come to Chapel Hill to meet Fedora and learn about the program he hoped to build.
Already, there was an electric atmosphere around campus, the kind that only comes with a UNC-Duke game at the Smith Center. Fedora didn’t want to hide from it. Instead, he wanted to channel that energy into his program, and he wanted to convince some of the state’s best high school football players that they could create that buzz, too.
“He gave this huge speech,” said Khris Francis, a Durham Hillside running back, “about keeping the in-state kids all coming here to North Carolina, so we can have a North Carolina dream team.”
Francis grew up in Durham and grew up a North Carolina fan. But he didn’t know for sure that he wanted to play for the Tar Heels until visiting with Fedora and his staff, and listening to Fedora’s talk about keeping the top in-state talent at home.
Francis gave his verbal commitment to UNC that day. So did his Hillside teammate, Korin Wiggins, a defensive back. In the days that followed, two more in-state players committed to the Tar Heels: Jordan Fieulleteau, a receiver from Raleigh Wakefield, and R.J. Prince, an offensive lineman from Albemarle High who is considered one of the best prospects in the country at his position.
A little more than two months ago, Fedora and his staff were salvaging a recruiting class that had been left in shambles by a coaching staff transition and the grim specter of NCAA penalties for violations that occurred under former head coach Butch Davis. Now, the Heels are off to one of the fastest recruiting starts in the country.
Dividing the state
Entering its annual spring football game on Saturday, UNC already had secured eight verbal commitments from members of the class of 2013. Florida State is the only other ACC school with as many commitments as the Tar Heels.
“It’s been a little surprising, and I think in a good way, for North Carolina fans,” said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “They’ve been very aggressive and really focusing on the state. Butch got away from that a little bit at one point and really struggled getting it back.”
Six of UNC’s eight commitments are from in-state players. Those six in-state commitments are more impressive given that UNC counted just five in-state players among the 23-man recruiting class that signed with the Tar Heels in February.
On national signing day, Fedora spoke with disappointment about the lack of recruiting success in the state. Among the top 10 prospects in North Carolina, according to Rivals.com, only one, Greensboro Page High quarterback James Summers, remained in the state. Summers signed with UNC.
Fedora promised he would emphasize recruiting within the state, and he spoke of building a theoretical wall around North Carolina. His early recruiting success has placed the Tar Heels far in front of their in-state rivals on the recruiting trail. Combined, Duke, East Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest have six commitments so far.
N.C. State and Wake have none.
“We’ve just put a big emphasis on it,” Fedora said of recruiting well in North Carolina. “And our staff has done a great job. We have the state split up nine ways, so every staff member has a piece of the state. They’re working hard building relationships with the high school coaches in their areas and getting to know them
“They’ll go on the road here in two weeks, and they’ll be in those areas, getting to know those guys even better.”
UNC’s in-state momentum began with its recruitment of Summers. A versatile quarterback who led Page to the state championship with his ability to run and to pass, Summers had previously committed to N.C. State when Fedora and his staff began recruiting him in January.
Blake Anderson, the UNC offensive coordinator, believed Summers could be an ideal fit for the Tar Heels’ up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense. Anderson set up a visit with Summers at Page, who was the first player that Anderson met who wasn’t already committed to UNC.
Anderson asked Summers for 10 minutes to talk. An hour later, they were still talking. The talks continued over the phone, and in person again when Summers visited Chapel Hill. About a week before signing day, Summers backed out of his commitment to the Wolfpack and said he was headed to North Carolina.
“We want the great players in state here,” Anderson said. “He’s a great player. He’s a great athlete. He’s probably one of the most explosive kids I watched on film. We wanted that kid here, and we definitely didn’t want him playing in the red and white. You know, I don’t want to be playing against him. So it was a huge priority.”
Emphasizing state pride
Summers was considered UNC’s most important coup in the class of 2012. His signing might help legitimize Fedora and his staff in the eyes of some of the best in-state prospects in the class of 2013.
Before accepting the offer to become UNC’s head coach, Fedora said he spoke with Mack Brown, who coached the Tar Heels from 1988 through 1997.
Brown navigated UNC through two tumultuous 1-10 seasons, in 1988 and 1989, but then led the Tar Heels to eight consecutive winning seasons. He built his program largely on the strength of in-state talent, and he told Fedora that he must do the same.
“That was one of the things that he told me – that you know, you’ve got to put up a border around the state,” Fedora said. “And there’s too many really good football players that are leaving the state. And to be successful, you’ve got to keep those kids at home.”
When he meets with an in-state prospect these days, Fedora makes a point to try to instill a sense of pride in staying home. Out-of-state schools – especially SEC programs such as Florida and Georgia who have long had success recruiting in North Carolina – can sell tradition and prestige.
Fedora tries to sell the concept of staying home and building something here.
“That’s something that I think is important to stress also to the (high school) coaches in the state,” he said. “You know, because it starts with them. And then to the kids – to start taking some pride in their state … if you keep all these great players that have been leaving, and you keep them here, just think about how good the school is going to be in the state of North Carolina.”
That is what Fedora talked about during his speech on junior day. He spoke of building a North Carolina dream team, comprised solely of North Carolina players. Players like Francis said the speech meant something to him. It registered.
He had a scholarship offer from Clemson and had received interest from several out-of-state schools. But Francis decided that day to play at UNC, and commitments from in-state players have continued to come for UNC.