North Carolina coach Larry Fedora told a story on Wednesday – national signing day – that illustrated what the Tar Heels were up against in this recruiting cycle, what they had to deal with amid an NCAA investigation and a long-running academics and athletics scandal that won’t go away.
“I was told today by one of the high school coaches ... that when (a rival coach) came in, they didn’t say anything about their school,” Fedora said. “It was just nothing but smearing the University of North Carolina the whole time they were in there.”
Fedora said negative recruiting against UNC was at an “all-time high” but that his staff did a “tremendous job” overcoming that and putting together a 19-player class that Rivals.com ranks the 28th-best nationally, and fifth in the ACC.
Nine members of UNC’s signing class have enrolled in school, which helped make for a relatively stress-free signing day. National signing day is the day when high school seniors who will play Division I college football sign national letters of intent, making their choices official.
At UNC it came with few surprises, though the Tar Heels did lose Prentice McKinney – a defensive back from Dallas who had committed – to Oklahoma. That might not have come as the biggest surprise, anyway, and everything else went according to plan.
The strength of the Tar Heels’ class is up front, where UNC signed four offensive linemen and three defensive linemen. Two of the offensive linemen – Tommy Hatton, from New Jersey, and William Sweet, from Jacksonville, Fla. – are considered four-star prospects, according to Rivals.com.
The class also includes Jalen Dalton, a defensive end from Clemmons who some considered the best prospect in his class in the state. Dalton, who enrolled early, visited UNC’s campus 18 to 20 times before committing to UNC in the fall, Fedora said.
“Sometimes he didn’t even tell us he was coming,” Fedora said. “And he would just show up. So he got to see everything that we were. There was no show put on for him. He was here watching us coach. He was here talking to players, spending time with players when we weren’t around.
“He was able to find out everything about this program.”
Dalton’s arrival is especially significant given the Tar Heels’ defensive woes a season ago. UNC finished 6-7 – its first losing season since 2008 – mostly because its defense was among the worst in the country, and the worst in school history.
Fedora at the end of the season parted ways with Vic Koenning, the former assistant coach most responsible for the defense. He replaced him with former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who led the Tigers to the 2010 national championship.
Chizik, who on Wednesday addressed reporters for the first time since UNC hired him, is known for running a 4-3 defense. He said Wednesday, though, that he would adapt his scheme and strategy, at least in the short term, based on the personnel that he has inherited.
Fedora said the changes in personnel on the defensive coaching staff, meanwhile, had an effect on the size of UNC’s class. For the first time since Fedora arrived at UNC he had a full allotment of scholarships but only used 19 of the 25 he could have awarded.
“Our intention was to (use the full allotment of scholarships) until we made a change with the defense, and a new philosophy defensively,” Fedora said. “We got kind of a late run on some of those kids that we made a run at toward the end, and didn’t go the way we wanted it to go.
“So instead of going for quantity we thought we better go for the quality and save those scholarships for next year’s class.”
In each of the past three years, UNC’s recruiting was hampered by scholarship limitations that resulted from the NCAA’s first investigation into impermissible benefits and academic fraud within the football program. The NCAA has decided to reopen that case but the scope is much wider than football, and the NCAA’s focus is on the bogus African studies courses and how they benefited athletes.
Though the scholarship reductions are no longer in place, UNC still fought negative recruiting. The NCAA in the summer reopened its investigation at UNC, and Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice Department official, released in the fall the details of his investigation, which found, among other conclusions, that a long-running “paper class scheme” helped keep athletes eligible for 18 years.
Fedora said he and his staff spent a lot of time “spinning our wheels” addressing “made up” stories – many of them likely about what kind of sanctions the Tar Heels might face from the NCAA.
“It’s something you have to address on a daily matter,” Fedora said. “When you feel like you’ve got things calmed down, and somebody else makes up something else and tells a kid and his family and so then you have to, you obviously have to address it and put that fire out so they know the truth.
“It’s something that’s going to continue to happen until we get it all straightened out.”