SPRINGFIELD, Va. — High school football players get noticed by college recruiters in all sorts of ways. Some wow on video, others make an impression at summer skills camps. But there’s always the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.
That’s what happened with Jeremiah Clarke, a defensive lineman from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., who is one of North Carolina assistant coach Walt Bell’s prized recruits graduating next spring and arriving on campus in the summer of 2014.
Clarke, a basketball player who was too heavy to play youth football, burst upon the Northern Virginia football scene last fall when he chased down quarterbacks from behind, using his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame to gain ground on them en route to 11.5 sacks.
One of those quarterbacks was Caleb Henderson, a nationally ranked passer from Lake Braddock High in Burke, Va., who also committed to the Tar Heels for next year. The two play in the same district, and when Henderson’s Bruins beat T.C. Williams last fall 21-7, Clarke was the one player the Bruins couldn’t block.
As the story goes, when Bell called the Bruins coaches to check in on Henderson’s progress, they couldn’t help but tell him about this big defensive lineman from the other team.
That’s just one of the stories about Bell successfully plucking four prime players – Henderson, Clarke, linebacker Malik Carney and RB/DB M.J. Stewart – from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Over the past year, Bell and coach Larry Fedora raided territory that historically has been controlled by Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech. With each recruit that heads to Chapel Hill, an ACC rival misses out on a quality player.
UNC has just three players – most notably starting quarterback Bryn Renner – from Northern Virginia high schools. The year before Renner arrived there were none.
“That’s an area that we almost treat as an in-state area,” Bell said. “It’s an area we recruit hard. There are places in our own state that are further away than that. Historically when we’ve been good here, we’ve done well in Northern Virginia.”
And it makes sense that top recruits who look at Virginia Tech would consider North Carolina, too. The trip from Renner’s high school in Springfield, Va., to Chapel Hill is 20 minutes farther than the trip to Blacksburg.
The not-too-close, but-still-close-enough aspect resonated with Arlington’s M.J. Stewart, who plays tailback and defensive back for Yorktown High. Stewart is the top two-way player in the region – his running, kick returns and pass defense led the Patriots to a 30-3 record, including 6-1 this season.
“I just thought Maryland was too close to home. I had to get away a little bit,” said Stewart, a couple days before opening his season with 220 yards and four touchdowns against Coolidge (Washington, D.C.). He also turned down offers from Virginia, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Boston College and Nebraska.
Stewart is an offensive standout in high school, but he intends to focus on defense in college.
“You’ve got to have a certain swag, certain attitude on defense. You get to be nasty,” he said. He’s looking forward to facing Tar Heel receivers like Quinshad Davis in practice a year from now. “So when we go up against teams like Florida State or Miami, I’ll be ready.”
Henderson, 6-3, 230, has a big arm and surprising speed. His high school produced Carolina legends Mia Hamm and Hubert Davis. He spent his summer at a gym run by the family of Cleveland Browns defensive back Joe Haden – workouts that his father, Eric, said “reduced him to a pile of goo” each day. He’s prepared for Fedora’s fast-paced offense.
“Fedora’s probably the biggest influence,” said Henderson of athletes from Northern Virginia getting interested in the Tar Heels. “Plus the facilities and the up-and-coming (attitude) at UNC. They said this is the biggest year (ever) for Northern Virginia.”
Bell said part of that success is because of Renner’s father, Bill, who along with coaching his son at West Springfield, served at two other high schools in the area before that. Whenever Bell is in town, he said, the Tar Heels logo brings up lots of good stories about the Renner family.
“Bill coached there forever and is really well thought of,” Bell said. “He’s got so many great relationships. That’s really helped in opening some doors for me.”
And just as young athletes looked up to Bryn Renner and monitored his success at UNC, others will keep an eye on this four-pack from Virginia. If they do well, the pipeline might only just be starting to pay dividends.
“I’ve been around a lot of great high school football, and there’s plenty of kids there who can help us win the ACC championship,” Bell said of the talent in Northern Virginia. “Some states have their advantages with the amount of spring practice and little things like that, but that doesn’t have anything to do with gene pool and what type of athlete a state is producing.”