Commentary

Home sweet home

North Carolina coaches are focused on keeping the top prospects from leaving

Originally Published: May 8, 2012
By Dave Hooker | ESPN RecruitingNation

How in the world could Michigan basketball influence North Carolina football? Just ask UNC co-recruiting coordinator Walt Bell.

"We're a big idea group," Bell said. "The Fab Five documentary that was on ESPN awhile back, some of our guys watched that and we watched some excerpts as a staff.

"At the end of the day, what was special about that story is they got one to jump [and commit], then he got the next one to jump, then he got the next one to jump."

Two decades later, North Carolina, under first-year head coach Larry Fedora, is lining up a class that hopes to create a legacy of change. The key to that is to keep in-state prospects in state.

"We knew that the biggest issue that we would face would be keeping the great players in the state of North Carolina in North Carolina," said Bell, who coaches tight ends for the Tar Heels. "So the day we got here that plan started getting put in place. We can't get none out of the top 10 [prospects in the state]."

That was the case last season when the Tar Heels missed on the top 11 prospects from the state. Florida, South Carolina, Clemson and Ohio State nabbed the top prospects while UNC dealt with an NCAA investigation involving impermissible benefits from agents.

But that's not the only problem the Tar Heels face. Keeping the best players at home has been a problem for many years and while there are many reasons, one stands out above the rest.

"The SEC, I think," said longtime Rockingham (N.C.) Richmond County coach Paul Hoggard. "[North Carolina] is traditionally a basketball state. Football has more of an emphasis [in the SEC]."

And even Bell concedes that competing against the SEC is challenging.

"Very," he said. "We can act like it's not, but it is. At the end of the day, the SEC is going to make sure they're taken care of and it just so happens that the network that they're on most [ESPN] is the world's largest sports network. So that's a battle you always fight."

Another battle is that there are so many programs, but one isn't dominant so all the in-state schools are battling each other plus outside schools.

"Tennessee is a great example," Hoggard said. "You've got Tennessee and whoever else. Nothing wrong with the rest of the schools in Tennessee but if you have a choice, you're going to go to Tennessee. North Carolina, I think, is seen a little different. You've got [NC] State, Duke, Wake [Forest], then you throw in East Carolina, they're all kind of seen in the same light."

In the early stages, Bell and his staff seem to be overcoming the challenges. The Tar Heels have eight commitments -- six from in-state -- and appear to be gaining momentum. Still, the Tar Heels aren't celebrating anything just yet.

"We're excited that a plan that we had a short time to put in place seems to be working, but that can change tomorrow," he said.

Part of the plan is about imparting a family atmosphere where integrity is key. Recruiting or not, that was a prerequisite after last year's scandal-ridden season in which the Tar Heels finished 7-5 because several players were suspended.

"They're real down to earth," said Ryan Switzer from Charleston (W.V.) George Washington, who committed to UNC in March. "They're husbands and fathers. It's a good atmosphere and Coach Fedora is doing a good job."

Selling in-state prospects on what North Carolina can offer is also important.

"Those kids can do all the things that they've ever dreamed of, all the things that they've wanted to do. As long as we stay here together, we can get it done," Bell said. "The special thing about the University of North Carolina right now is we don't have to be negative. We're a school with a top five public education in the country. We're in a place with incredible facilities.

"We're in a place where we can play in a BCS league and play against Clemson, play against the University of Miami, play against Florida State, play against NC State as well. There are some great teams in this league as well. It's not like we're playing nobody."

Bell thinks the style of play will help North Carolina recruiters as well. Fedora's offense should excite prospects. UNC's defense could do the same. The Tar Heels will use a multiple package with a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and a hybrid linebacker/safety.

Still, offense is Fedora's calling card. At Southern Miss from 2008 to 2011, he used an up-tempo style on offense that tended to run 80 plays per game instead of 60, which most teams average.

"That's 20 more opportunities you have to make an impact on a football game," Bell said. "I think the tempo fits the culture that we've now become. Everything's instantaneous. Everything's fast. There's no standing around.

"Even though we're a spread offense, we're still a physical, run-first team," he said. "If you're an offensive lineman, you're going to get to do all the things required of you if you have hopes to play at the next level. You're not going to be dropping back in pass protection all day long an never run block. We're going to be downhill."

Bell has a list of players he can point to that have proven the ACC is a path that can lead to the NFL.

"Julius Peppers, Gaines Adams, Lawrence Taylor," he said. "We could start going down the list. There's some pretty good football players in the NFL right now. Talk about the premier defensive ends in all of football right now. ACC. ACC. ACC."

Recruiting nearby won't be enough. Bell said his staff also needs to recruit well in Virginia, North Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Washington D.C. and Maryland. Yet there is a balance. North Carolina has offered a scholarship to 20 in-state prospects. Bell said based off of his research, there are typically 10 to 15 BCS-level prospects in North Carolina.

But that number can change year to year. How many do the Tar Heels need to land annually to be successful?

"As many as can help us win football games," Bell said. "That could be 25 of them. That could be 10 of them. We're going to take the best kids that we feel like can help us win football game.

"If it's even with a kid in North Carolina and a kid in Virginia, we're going to take the kid in North Carolina. We'll always lean towards the in-state kid if we feel like it's even."

North Carolina prospects will appreciate that approach, yet Bell knows it will take plenty more to stop the exodus out of the Tar Heel state.

"You have to convince them that home is home," he said.

Dave Hooker

Reporter, RecruitingNation