Larry Fedora has signed three recruiting classes as North Carolina's head coach and each class has been better than its predecessor.
UNC made a modest improvement in Scout.com's Team Rankings from 2013 to 2014. But the Tar Heels accumulated over 200 more points. Furthermore, it signed an additional Top 100 prospect and increased its average star ranking from 3.17 to 3.23.
Despite dealing with scholarship reductions – this is the final class that must deal with those sanctions – the Tar Heel coaching staff met all of its position objectives and filled additional roster needs. Particularly, UNC added depth to its offensive line, continued to upgrade the talent at safety, and found a way to sign prospects that fit the very specific mold of a Fedora tight end.
Five scholarship offensive linemen left UNC's roster following the 2013 season. Most detrimental were the departures of four-year starting left tackle James Hurst and the early exit of center Russell Bodine – both of which will be selected in the upcoming NFL Draft. In response, UNC inked four offensive line prospects – Josh Allen, Jared Cohen, Caleb Samuel, and Bentley Spain. Spain, a four-star prospect who enrolled in January, will immediately compete to fill the void left by Hurst. Meanwhile, Samuel, a high ceiling prospect who has only one year of experience at O-line, could be a major contributor once he fully matures. Although neither Allen nor Cohen have extensive experience snapping, both should provide depth within the interior sooner rather than later.
"It's definitely a need for us - we need to create some depth on the offensive line," Fedora said. "We wanted to focus on the O-line this year and signing four guys was very important. We got two long guys on the edge and we got two road-grader type guys that'll be on the inside."
Since bringing his 4-2-5 defensive scheme to Chapel Hill, Vic Koenning has been forcing a lot of square pegs into round holes – particularly at the safety position where three start in the base package, as opposed to two. Some help arrived prior to the 2013 season (Donnie Miles and Dominique Green), but the depth chart is not where Koenning wants it to be. UNC continued that infusion with the 2014 class, plucking three safety signees who played high school ball approximately 15 minutes apart – Cameron Albright, Allen Artis, and Ayden Bonilla.
"All three guys are going to look nice getting off the bus," Koenning said of the safety haul. "They're not scared ... and they bring a lot to the table as far as between the ears, all three are smart guys. You look at all those things and then you take their talent, that's a plus."
Well before he declared for the NFL Draft the UNC staff had pondered life after Eric Ebron. Locating tight ends isn't a problem, but finding tight ends that fit Fedora's offense is difficult. Fedora's offense calls for tight ends that are big enough to play attached to the line, but athletic enough to split out wide and double as a receiver to cause matchup problems.
"He's the hybrid of the offense - he has to block, he has to catch, he's attached to the formation and he's detached," co-offensive coordinator Gunter Brewer said.
Finding the right prospects for this spot can be so challenging that even though it needed two prospects, the staff was willing to bend and only take one. To its surprise, it was able to uncover and land two – Avery Edwards and Brandon Fritts. The staff identified Edwards early at its team camp and quickly became his leader. Fritts, a former teammate and close friend of UNC red-shirt freshman Mitch Trubisky, was a slightly different story – the staff loved his film, but hadn't had the chance to see him in-person. Fritts aced the "eye test" while attending the Tar Heels' Spring Game and committed shortly thereafter.
When he took office following the 2011 season, Fedora expressed a desire to put a proverbial fence around the Tar Heel State. Fedora made significant strides toward that goal with the 2014 recruiting class.
While Fedora's first full class (2013) showed promise in landing six North Carolinians, it came up short on prospects that ranked within the top group. Not only did UNC better its previous class's in-state total (eight), but two of its in-state signees rank within the top ten – Elijah Hood and Bentley Spain. Furthermore, landing Hood marked the first time UNC scored the state's top prospect in recent memory.
In addition to Hood and Spain, UNC secured signatures from N.C. natives Josh Cabrera, Cayson Collins, Robert Dinkins, Avery Edwards, Freeman Jones, and Austin Proehl. All of the aforementioned rank within the top 40 in NC, except Jones, a kicker who played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and is ranked the second best kicker in the nation by Chris Sailer.
"We haven't arrived yet, but we're making progress in (North Carolina)," Fedora said. "We said we need to keep the best players in this state and we've done a better job of that each year."
While his name won't be found on any signee list, Corbin Daly could end up being just as impactful as any signee. The punter provides UNC its second U.S. Army All-American specialist and is ranked as the second best punter in the nation by Chris Sailer.
Outside of the N.C. borders, there's not a state that Fedora has emphasized more than Georgia. And for good reason: besides California, Florida, and Texas – which are significantly more populated – there isn't a state that produces more college football talent (according to Football Study Hall statistics).
Keying on this stat, Georgia is the only state – besides N.C., of course – where Fedora has deployed more than two assistant coaches to recruit. In fact, four were actually assigned a territory within the Peach State. As a result of those efforts, UNC landed five prospects from Georgia – Cameron Albright, Allen Artis, Ayden Bonilla, Caleb Samuel, and Tyrell Tomlin.
"There's a lot of good high school football players in the state of Georgia," Fedora said. "We've got three coaches that work that state extensively. ... That's five and a half hours from Chapel Hill. You can drive back and forth - it's good for their families to be able to get here - and these are all great players with great character."
In addition to Georgia and North Carolina, UNC found success in Virginia. The staff signed five prospects who rank among the top 25 in the Old Dominion State – Malik Carney, Jeremiah Clarke, Caleb Henderson, Tyler Powell, and M.J. Stewart.
Headliner: Elijah Hood. Hood is UNC's highest ranked prospect (55th in the Scout 300 and 10th in RB rankings). But, just as important, he's also the first No. 1 in-state recruit UNC has landed in quite some time. Despite UNC's quality depth at running back, Hood should immediately earn a spot within the rotation – especially since he enrolled in January and will be eligible to participate in spring practice. His high school stats were off the charts – 6,847 yards and 99 touchdowns over his last two seasons. Initially, Hood verbally committed to Notre Dame, but proximity and his relationship with UNC assistant Gunter Brewer eventually led him to flip to the Tar Heels.
"I'm anxious to see him this spring," co-offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. "Obviously what we've seen on tape is an incredible back. He's physical, can handle a lot of carries, protection wise he'll be fine. We've got guys with speed, but it'll be nice to have someone with a mixture who can be physical between the tackles, but has got speed to get outside also. He's a complete back. ... The competition will be great."
Best in Class: Jeremiah Clarke. Outside of Hood, the only UNC signee whose name appears in the nation's top 100 ranking is Clarke. UNC beat out the likes of Miami, Penn State, Tennessee, and Virginia for the four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Clarke has the length to play defensive end, but the strength to play inside.
"He has great size, he's an athletic kid," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. "His biggest attribute is he rushes the passer. I see him as a 3-technique that is athletic enough to play the edge but big enough to play over the guard or tackle. Real athletic guy for his size so I see him being an interchangeable guy."
Sleeper Pick: Jared Cohen. Cohen only picked up three scholarship offers during his recruitment – Maryland, UNC, and Penn State. That isn't indicative of his talent, though. Once Cohen committed to Maryland a year ago – with the help of the Owings Mills (Md.) McDonogh School – he shut down his recruitment. That led to a lack of publicity, which coupled with the lack of offers that produced a three-star rating. Despite his misleading rating, Cohen is very talented. Also, he enters a situation (UNC's interior offensive line) that's in dire need of depth thanks to early departures.
"He's an impressive kid - we're thrilled to have him," Kapilovic said. "Very well coached. You can tell from watching film he has good technique - really good feet, moves around well, can bend. Very strong, he's already a 400-pound bencher. He's got all those tools and plays physical, tries to finish – he's got a nasty demeanor, which is great."
Immediate Contributor: Bentley Spain. While UNC's interior offensive line lacks depth, it returns its two starting guards plus Lucas Crowley, who saw significant snaps as a true freshman. UNC's left tackle spot, on the other hand, loses four-year starter James Hurst. Spain, a U.S. Army All-American and four-star talent, enrolled in January and will immediately compete for the vacant left tackle position. Like with Cohen, offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic played an integral part in landing Spain.
"(Enrolling early) is just a huge advantage to be able to compete for a job this spring and be that much more ahead of the guys coming in this summer," Kapilovic said. "It gives him every opportunity to possibly play this fall."