The NCAA Infractions Committee included a clause allowing for UNC to delay the penalty phase for a year due to the infractions report being released after National Signing Day. Despite the timing involved, North Carolina was proactive in starting the penalty phase immediately to prevent the scholarship sanctions from factoring into the 2015 recruiting class.
Therefore, UNC enrolled 20 initial counters for the 2012 football season in August – or so it thought.
Enter third-year sophomore Roy Smith. He enrolled at North Carolina for the 2010-11 academic year to run track. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Miami, Fla. native placed second in the 400-meter hurdles at the ACC Outdoor Championships in 2011 and finished fourth in the same event in 2012.
Smith played wide receiver at powerhouse Northwestern High School and decided with his father last spring that he would approach first-year head coach Larry Fedora about walking onto the football team.
Fedora agreed. UNC was short on wide receivers and as injuries mounted throughout training camp, Smith found himself taking snaps with the first- and second-team offensive units.
Around that same time in August, according to sources, UNC learned the NCAA had determined that Smith was a recruited student-athlete due to his high school interaction with the track and field coaching staff. Even though Smith was not recruited for football, the NCAA bylaws apply to the institution, not the individual athletic programs.
As North Carolina had already enrolled 20 scholarship players for camp in August, this determination meant that Smith would count as No. 21, according to sources.
North Carolina could have avoided the initial counter crunch by not allowing Smith to play last fall. UNC's preseason three-deep at punt returner, however, was depleted by injury and attrition, forcing running back Gio Bernard to assume the role in the season opener against Elon. After Bernard left the game with a knee injury, Smith took his place, returning six punts for 127 yards.
Smith ultimately played in six games in 2012, catching three passes for 30 yards and returning 12 punts for 164 yards.
The NCAA has since decided to grant UNC a reprieve by allowing the school make up for the 2012 scholarship overage by subtracting a scholarship from its 2013 count.
A school official confirmed to IC on Tuesday that UNC will be limited to 19 initial counters for 2013.
"Obviously it means UNC loses an initial counter for 2013," InsideCarolina.com recruiting analyst Don Callahan said. "From a recruiting strategy standpoint, it doesn't change anything because the staff was fully aware of the situation in August. It doesn't mean that UNC can only sign 19. It just means if the Tar Heels sign more than 19 they are basically over-signing."
That distinction is critical. The NCAA limits its Football Bowl Subdivision schools to 28 signees between Signing Day and May 31. North Carolina will not come close to that total next Wednesday, but even if it signs in excess of 20 players, the 19 initial counter limit isn't applied until August enrollment.