North Carolina’s NFL draft success began on Thursday when the Chicago Bears traded up to select quarterback Mitch Trubisky with the second overall pick. It continued on Friday and Saturday with the completion of dreams that once might have seemed unlikely.
Among the UNC’s selections in the draft were a defensive tackle who lost his ability to walk in high school; a former walk-on wide receiver who had to fight for a place on the team, and then for a meaningful role; and another receiver whose lack of size proved to be no obstacle.
Years ago, the thought of an NFL future for Nazair Jones, Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer might have seemed far-fetched. Jones woke up one day during his junior year of high school and couldn’t walk. Hollins arrived at UNC after he lacked college scholarship offers when he left high school.
Switzer, meanwhile, never lacked for attention as a high school standout in West Virginia. And yet at 5-8 he did, however, lack the kind of size that college coaches and professional scouts covet when they evaluate receiving prospects.
No matter, though. All three players fulfilled their lifelong goal of becoming an NFL draft pick.
Jones, the defensive tackle who left UNC after his junior season, went to the Seattle Seahawks with the 102nd overall selection on Friday. Sixteen picks later, in the fourth round, the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday selected Hollins, who became a valuable receiver at UNC after excelling on special teams.
And then it was Switzer’s turn. The Dallas Cowboys chose him later in the fourth round, with the 133rd overall pick. One round later, the Arizona Cardinals selected T.J. Logan, the Tar Heels’ versatile running back, with the 179th pick.
Elijah Hood, the running back from Charlotte who left after his junior season after initially announcing that he’d return to school, became UNC’s sixth and final draft pick. The Oakland Raiders selected him in the seventh round with the 242nd overall pick. UNC’s six draft picks were its most since 2011.
Jones, Switzer, Hollins and Logan all emerged as leaders for UNC in recent seasons. Hollins was UNC’s special teams captain for four consecutive seasons. His senior season ended in mid-October, when he suffered a broken collarbone during UNC’s victory at Miami.
Without its most dependable deep passing threat, the Tar Heels’ offense lacked the kind of big-play ability that Hollins created for several seasons. During his junior year, he averaged 24.8 yards per reception, which led the nation.
Hollins left UNC with 20 touchdown catches. Switzer, meanwhile, left as the school’s all-time leader in receptions (244) and receiving yards (2,907). He caught a school-record 96 passes last season for 1,112 yards, which were the third-most in school history.
Both Switzer and Hollins had to overcome challenges on their way to the NFL – a lack of initial opportunity in college, for Hollins; and a lack of size, for Switzer, who tattooed the word “believe” inside his lip. And then there was Jones’ path. His story became one of college football’s most improbable in recent seasons.
In November 2011, during his junior year at Roanoke Rapids High, Jones woke up one morning after a state playoff game and his body froze. He couldn’t move his legs. He was eventually diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a rare condition that will require him to take medication the rest of his life.
Jones, who lost about 50 pounds throughout the ordeal, spent several weeks at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill during his rehabilitation. He eventually recovered enough to participate in a UNC football camp – not far from that Ronald McDonald House – and he earned a scholarship offer.
The day he received that offer, Jones and his high school coach began driving away toward Interstate 40. Then Jones told his coach to turn around. They went back to UNC coach Larry Fedora’s office, where Jones accepted the offer and decided to come to UNC.
He left college, with one year of eligibility remaining, determined to make one more dream come true. It did in part late on Friday night, when Jones heard his name called in the NFL draft. It had been only about five and a half years after he’d suddenly lost his ability to walk.