North Carolina opens the 2013 college football season Thursday night at South Carolina (6 p.m./ESPN). While wins and losses in specific games rarely have a direct impact on recruiting, a victory could give Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora and his staff a little more ammo to combat an issue that is preventing UNC (and honestly the other four FBS programs in the state) from competing for championships at the highest level of college football.
A win against an SEC opponent would give Larry Fedora more mementum in recruiting the state.
The top prospects in North Carolina have been leaving the state to play their college football, with much of the elite talent heading to programs in the Southeastern Conference.
Current Texas head coach Mack Brown went 54-18 from 1992-97 in Chapel Hill, including 21-3 during his final two seasons. One of his assistants during his Tar Heel tenure summed up the reason for success.
“We were dominant in-state recruiting,” he said. “There is so much talent in that state and we got most of it when we were there.”
If you look at the 1998 NFL Draft, arguably the best of the Brown era, UNC produced three first-round picks. Two of those picks - Greg Ellis and Brian Simmons - were homegrown. The SEC and other programs, though, are now luring away the top-level in-state prospects. The Tar Heels play an SEC team Thursday night, and a glance around that league shows several North Carolina products in starting lineups. Here is a list of such prospects:
Defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan (Asheville) starting at Alabama
Defensive end Chris Smith (Mount Ulla) starting at Arkansas
Offensive tackle D.J. Humphries (Charlotte Mallard Creek) starting at Florida
Defensive end Jonathan Bullard (Shelby Crest) starting at Florida
Running back Todd Gurley (Tarboro) starting at Georgia
Running back Keith Marshall (Raleigh Millbrook) rotating at Georgia
Defensive end Denico Autry (Albermarle) starting at Mississippi State
Offensive tackle Corey Robinson (Havelock) starting at South Carolina
Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt (Winston-Salem Parkland) starting at South Carolina
Wide receiver Marquez North (Charlotte Mallard Creek) starting at Tennessee
Defensive tackle Daniel McCullers (Raleigh Southeast) starting at Tennessee
Those are just the starters. Marshall is included because he would most likely start anywhere else that did not have a Gurley-level back.
Of the 11 players listed, eight are lineman (six defensive). Talk to most coaches and they will tell you that the offensive and defensive lines are key in recruiting. The state of North Carolina annually produces great quality and depth at those positions, and the SEC programs are taking advantage of it.
There has always been talent in North Carolina. It’s the 11th-largest state in the country with 8 million-plus people, and is just a few thousand less than Georgia - which is a top-five talent-producer annually. That should bode well for the Heels, just as it does for UGA, but it simply hasn’t.
Georgia plucked its RB duo of Todd Gurley (pictured) and Keith Marshall out of North Carolina in 2012.
Thursday night’s opponent, South Carolina, hasn’t signed the level of prospect out of North Carolina that a Florida or Georgia has, but the Gamecocks recruit consistently well in that state.
South Carolina can point to Melvin Ingram (Richmond/San Diego Chargers), Travian Robertson (Scotland/Atlanta Falcons), Ryan Succop (Hickory/Kansas City Chiefs) and Chris Culliver (Garner/San Francisco 49ers) as former Gamecocks from the Old North State who have crossed the border to play for Steve Spurrier (who has been the coach since 2005) and ended up in the NFL.
It hasn’t just been the SEC recruiting North Carolina well. Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Stanford all have had success recruiting Tar Heel State talent in recent years. Clemson will start three North Carolina products - offensive guard Tyler Shatley and linebackers Stephone Anthony and Spencer Shuey - against Georgia on Saturday night. Jamal Marcus is on the two-deep for the Buckeyes, and the Irish have enjoyed the services of Prince Shembo for the past few seasons. Stanford landed linebacker Peter Kalambayi in the 2013 class.
But there’s no doubt that the biggest raiders of talent in the Tar Heel State are from the SEC. In fact, a glance at the current and previous two recruiting cycles shows that the North Carolina talent to the SEC trend is continuing, but there are positive signs that things could be changing under Fedora and staff.
In the 2012 cycle, SEC programs signed four of the top five as Humphries, Marshall and Bullard all left to play in the conference.
In the 2013 cycle, SEC programs signed the top three prospects from North Carolina according to 247Composite, which included defensive tackle Greg Gilmore (LSU), North and linebacker Larenz Bryant (South Carolina).
In the current cycle and looking forward, however, things are looking up. Earlier this week, Top247 running back Elijah Hood, who was committed to Notre Dame, pledged to the Tar Heels. Additionally, North Carolina has a commitment from Top247 offensive tackle Bentley Spain. UNC beat the Gamecocks head-to-head for the U.S. Army All-American. Five-star defensive tackle Shy Tuttle is one of the top Class of 2015 prospects in the country, and he has UNC tied with Alabama at the top of his list. Still, the top two in-state prospects for the 2014 cycle, defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard (Georgia) and quarterback Will Grier (Florida), are committed to SEC programs.
There is somewhat of a winning foundation in place, too. It isn’t as if North Carolina has been struggling to win games of late. The Heels were on probation last year, but still won eight games and would have captured the ACC Coastal Division title had they not been barred from reaching the championship game.
Flipping elite back Elijah Hood from Notre Dame was huge for the Heels.
UNC had three consecutive 8-5 seasons from 2008-10 then went 7-6 in 2011 before going 8-4 in Fedora’s first season. The NCAA investigation, though, derailed the efforts of former coach Butch Davis to build the program. It also led to an interim year under current Ohio State assistant Everett Withers, and then Fedora came to town. That instability, combined with the aggressive efforts of other programs, perhaps was the biggest catalyst for top prospects leaving the state.
The commitments of Hood and Spain are definitely positive signs, but the fact remains that since Brown’s time in Chapel Hill the Heels have had trouble landing top in-state prospects – no matter who was UNC's coach.
Defeating a top-10 opponent from the SEC on the road on national television would go a long way toward showing recruits from the state that the Tar Heels are in the process of getting to the next level on the field and would help lay the groundwork for future recruiting success.