Beyond the cliches with UNC's Larry Fedora on national signing day

UNC coach Larry Fedora said the usual things coaches say on national signing day -- but he also acknowledged his quarterback situation has him a little bit in “panic mode.”
UNC coach Larry Fedora said the usual things coaches say on national signing day -- but he also acknowledged his quarterback situation has him a little bit in “panic mode.” rwillett@newsobserver.com

Larry Fedora said “it was a great day to be the head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels.” He said he believed – “I really do” – that the 20-player recruiting class that he and his staff had put together was “pretty special.”

He spoke of “high character.” He spoke of “high football IQs.”

“I really do believe that this group is going to be part of multiple championships while they're here,” he said.

Fedora said all of those things on Wednesday, national signing day. They were the kind of things he says every year on that day, and the kind of things that college football coaches all over the country repeat, every year, on the first Wednesday in February.

And yet if you listened closely enough Fedora provided some authentic insight, too, into the construction of this class, the significance of it, how it came together, what it included and what it didn't. So here's Fedora, beyond the cliches:

“We felt like our biggest need was going to be the offensive line and our defensive backs.”

And that's reflected in the make-up of the class: five offensive lineman, four defensive backs. The name to remember here is Jonah Melton, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound offensive lineman from Mebane. He's among the best prospects in the state.

In addition to Melton, UNC signed Jordan Tucker, who weighs more than 360 pounds, and Marcus McKethan, who weighs more than 350. The Tar Heels shouldn't lack for size up front in the coming years. In the defensive backfield, Dazz Newsome provided UNC's only signing day news when he kept quiet until Wednesday his decision to attend UNC.

“Nobody knew who Bug Howard was before he got here. Nobody knew who Mack Hollins was.”

In other words: relax about the lack of recognizable names among the receiving corps. UNC lost its top three receivers from last season – Hollins (who was injured for more than half of the season), Howard and Ryan Switzer. Austin Proehl is back, and so is former walk-on Thomas Jackson, but that's it.

UNC signed only two receivers in this class: J.T. Cauthen, who enrolled early, and Beau Corrales. They're both at least 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. They're likely going to have to contribute early, given the holes on the depth chart at that position.

“You've got to give Jake a lot of credit for this class. I'll do that in a heartbeat.”

On Jake Lawler, the defensive end from Charlotte. He was among the top in-state prospects, and he didn't waste any time committing to UNC (or arriving, for that matter, given his early enrollment last month). You hear sometimes about players recruiting other players. That was Lawler.

After Lawler committed, he encouraged other players to do the same. Perhaps “encouraged” is putting it mildly. Said Fedora: “Once he fell in love with the University of North Carolina, and decided that he wanted to come to North Carolina, he didn't wait, all right … he decided that he wanted to bring in a bunch of great guys around him.”

“Y'all ever been to Greenback? Anybody? Do you know where Greenback is?”

On Kayne Roberts, a little-known, unheralded linebacker from Greenback, Tenn. Roberts is probably the best story in this class. Fedora and his staff had never heard of Roberts before he attended a UNC football camp.

Roberts attended that camp only because one of his high school coaches knew Gunter Brewer, the Tar Heels' assistant. So Roberts arrived at camp and impressed Fedora with his speed. UNC didn't offer him then but the Tar Heels coaching staff remained interested. They began studying Roberts' film.

“Then you're watching film on him,” Fedora said. “And he's got a team that goes to the state championship, and he's playing quarterback, tailback, tight end, wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker, safety and corner. Kicking, punting, punt return and kickoff return.

“And he was good at all of it.”

No other school, not even a small one, not even a lower-division one, had offered Roberts a scholarship when Fedora decided to extend an offer. Roberts, Fedora said, wasted no time in accepting it. And so that's how an obscure player from tiny Greenback, Tenn., wound up in this recruiting class.

“I think not having that black cloud hanging over us in the state … is a positive thing and it helps us.”

Last year UNC didn't sign any player ranked among the top 10 prospects in the state, according to the 247sports.com composite ranking. During this recruiting cycle, four of the top 10 prospects in North Carolina signed with UNC. Fedora attributed some of the success to the absence of that “black cloud” related to the ongoing NCAA investigation.

“I don't want to scare you but you've got to be ready to play that first weekend in September.”

That's what Fedora said he told Michael Carter, the 5-foot-9 running back from Navarre, Fla. Carter, who enrolled early, steps into an enviable position at UNC, where Jordon Brown is the only running back with any college experience. Both Carter and Antwuan Branch, a running back from Clarksville, Tenn., will have the kind of opportunity for early playing time that freshmen rarely have.

“When you have attrition there it really throws you into a little bit of a panic mode, and that's kind of the situation I'm sitting in.”

On the quarterback situation. Fedora acknowledged that no one on his staff expected Mitch Trubisky to play one season before entering the NFL draft. The thought was that Trubisky would start for two years, giving younger players a chance to develop behind him.

It didn't happen that way, and by the time UNC's coaches realized that Trubisky might leave it was too late for them to start recruiting quarterback prospects in this class. And so UNC didn't sign any. Trubisky's departure, Fedora said, has left him scrambling, and in “panic mode.”

A graduate transfer remains a possibility. Beyond that, the Tar Heels have three quarterbacks – rising sophomore Nathan Elliott, and freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt – who could compete for the starting job. Quarterback was already going to be a priority for UNC in the 2018 class. Now it's … even more of a priority.

“All it did was push us up on the '18 guys,” Fedora said.

And, last, an out of context quote to remember from Fedora: “If I had my druthers …”

He was talking then about how he'd handle an early-signing period in college football. Druthers: An underrated, underused word.