There are players who get away in recruiting who never cause too much grief when they do, because they never come back to remind coaches up close and in person of what could have been. Then there are those like Pharoh Cooper.
He’s the receiver who went from Havelock High, not too far from Morehead City and Atlantic Beach, to the middle of South Carolina, where he has become one of the most dynamic players in college football. North Carolina will face him on Thursday night when it opens the season against South Carolina.
The Tar Heels wanted Cooper, for sure. They recruited him. How hard?
“Probably, not hard enough,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said after practice Monday.
It wasn’t all his fault, necessarily. Cooper graduated in 2013 and Fedora, now entering his fourth season with the Tar Heels, arrived in Chapel Hill in early 2012. Fedora liked Cooper, wanted Cooper, thought Cooper would be good.
But, “you know,” Fedora said, “that was in the transition.”
The one from Butch Davis to interim coach Everett Withers to Fedora. The transition directly affected the 2012 recruiting class – the one Fedora and his staff hastily put together and completed after they arrived – and it had a tangential effect on the 2013 class.
Fedora, like many UNC coaches before him, has tried to make a point of keeping the best in-state prospects in state. But he didn’t have a tremendous chance to do that with players in the 2012 class. And he had to rush to build relationships with players in the 2013 class.
“I don’t think that would have happened if we we’d have been here for a year,” Fedora said of Cooper choosing to go out of state to play for the Gamecocks. “But it just – unfortunately, that’s the way it played out.
“And I can’t say enough great things about the way he plays the game. That guy’s a ballplayer.”
The numbers make that clear enough. Cooper caught 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago. He ran for two touchdowns 200 yards – averaging 7.4 yards per carry – and also threw two touchdown passes.
If facing Cooper, a North Carolina kid, isn’t bad enough for Fedora, there’s also this: The quarterback who’ll be throwing to Cooper is another North Carolina player who left the state. That’d be Connor Mitch.
Mitch, a former standout at Wakefield, was considered a top-10 prospect in the state, according to 247Sports.com. Cooper wasn’t too far behind him in the rankings. That year, UNC successfully recruited four of the top 20 prospects in the state. Three of those top-20 players went to South Carolina (Cooper, Mitch and Larenz Bryant, a reserve linebacker who missed spring practice due to injury).
“You’re always faced with that,” Fedora said of in-state players who leave. “But again, it’s not about worrying the ones that get away, it’s about the ones you get. Because you’ve got them for four years. So you better do a great job of developing the ones you get.”
UNC, it should be noted, has recruited its share of players out of South Carolina. Quinshad Davis, the senior receiver, was among the Tar Heels’ most heralded recruits when he signed in 2012. Ty’Son Williams, a freshman running back who could play Thursday night, is another one.
Still, keeping North Carolina prospects in North Carolina has been a challenge for UNC – and every other in-state school. And preparing to face an offense that features Cooper and Mitch, underscores the importance of keeping the best prospects at home.
UNC has fared better, at least. In 2012, it signed three of the top-20 prospects in the North Carolina, according to 247Sports. (None of those three – J.J. Patterson, Phillip Williamson and James Summers – panned out, and none are at UNC.). The Tar Heels signed four of the top-20 in-state prospects in each of the 2013 and 2014 classes. In the 2015 class, UNC signed six of the top 20.
So UNC has been trending up. The same could be said for N.C. State, which signed four top-20 in-state prospects in the 2014 and 2015 classes. But UNC and N.C. State are not off to great starts with the 2016 class. Among the top 10 players in the class, six have committed – and none to a North Carolina school.
Alabama has a commitment from a top-10 North Carolina player. As do Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Clemson and Florida State. Unless those players change their minds, they will head out of state – some of them never to face a North Carolina school but others, perhaps, to come back and haunt the coaches who so desperately tried to keep them at home.