Cole Holcomb’s journey from walk-on to UNC starting linebacker

North Carolina linebacker Cole Holcomb and defensive back Patrice Rene (8) run through a drill during practice.
North Carolina linebacker Cole Holcomb and defensive back Patrice Rene (8) run through a drill during practice. rwillett@newsobserver.com

During his days at New Smyrna Beach High in Florida, there were no college scholarship offers for Cole Holcomb, at least none that are worthy of remembrance years later.

“I had a lot of D1-AA (offers),” Holcomb said, referring to the old name for lower-division FCS schools. “A lot of stuff like that, a lot of those kinds of offers. But nothing big time.”

Ask Holcomb what his best FCS offer was and he can’t tell you. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know because his high school head coach, Lance Jenkins, didn’t talk about those kinds of offers with Holcomb. A lower-division school was never the plan.

A place like UNC always was, though the Tar Heels – like every other major-conference school – never recruited Holcomb. And so Jenkins came up with a different plan. If schools wouldn’t come to Holcomb, then Jenkins would bring Holcomb to various schools.

There was, for a time, an arrangement with Duke. Holcomb planned to walk on there.

“And then that just didn’t work out,” Holcomb said after a recent practice. “And my coach made a few calls, got me in here.”

Here is UNC. Holcomb stood on the practice field where he’d just completed another long practice as the Tar Heels’ starting weak-side linebacker.

He’s a very bright kid. He can really run. He’ll hit you.

Larry Fedora

It’s the position vacated by Shakeel Rashad, who was a senior last season, and it’s a position Holcomb was never quite sure he’d be in – starting or otherwise. Here’s how it all happened: Jenkins, the high school coach, had a relationship with Dan Disch, UNC’s former defensive backs coach.

Disch liked Holcomb enough to give him a chance to walk onto the team. And so Holcomb did, before the 2014 season – a season that was disastrous for the defense and one that led to the firing of the old defensive coaching staff and the hiring of a new one, led by Gene Chizik.

Throughout most of spring practice in 2015, Holcomb was still a little-known walk-on. Opportunities for significant playing time in practice remained scarce.

“Wasn’t getting too many reps,” Holcomb said. “And then they just threw me on (the field in) that last scrimmage. I got a bunch of reps.”

Which led to a second-string position a season ago, backing up Rashad, and led to now: a starting position entering a season with the highest expectations surrounding the Tar Heels in nearly 20 years.

All the clichés are true, Holcomb said. Yes, he used the lack of big-school scholarship offers as motivation. Yes, those slights helped fuel weight-room workouts that have helped him go from 185 pounds to 220.

The story isn’t that simple, though. That version leaves out all the doubt.

“At the moment I didn’t think I could (do this),” he said of when he graduated high school. “I’m going to be honest. I thought I was just going to almost be a regular student at some point, and just go to college.

“But my (high school) coach told me I could do bigger things.”

Eventually his college coach agreed. Larry Fedora, entering his fifth season as UNC’s head coach, recently said Holcomb “has taken advantage of all of his opportunities.”

“He’s a very bright kid,” Fedora said. “He can really run. He’ll hit you.”

That’s all evident now, entering Holcomb’s junior season. It wasn’t so clear years ago, when head coaches like Fedora and assistants from other major programs didn’t pay Holcomb much attention.

Still, there was a path for Holcomb to play college football. An easier path. Lower-division schools sent him mail, some got in touch with his high school coach.

“He told them I wasn’t interested,” Holcomb said.