If the old adage “the game is won in the trenches” has any truth -- and UNC head coach Larry Fedora says it does -- the Tar Heels should expect to see marked improvement in the coming seasons after signing five four-star linemen on Wednesday – seven linemen total.
"We have to continue to build depth up front on both sides if we’re going to be successful the way we want to be," Fedora said. "The game is won in the trenches, it always is. There are guys on the outside that will make plays for you, but those guys up front are the ones that have to get it done so we really felt good about what we did on the offensive line and defensive line."
Furthermore, there’s a clear headliner on both sides of the ball. Jalen Dalton, one of the top in-state prospects regardless of position, is a top 10 defensive end. His offensive counterpart, William Sweet, is a fellow member of the Scout 300. Both four-star recruits were offered by football powers nationwide and chose Chapel Hill as their home.
Dalton leads a defensive line haul that includes two other four-star prospects that are also members of the Scout 300: Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge. Perhaps just as important, all three D-linemen bring something different to UNC’s roster – Crawford is a 6-foot-1, 317-pound nose tackle with a non-stop motor; Dalton is a long, athletic, explosive edge rusher with a very high ceiling; and Strowbridge is a ‘tweener who possesses the strength and power to play inside, but the explosiveness and agility to play end.
"Jalen is going to play the weakside end for us - he was a major get," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. "Jason will play our strongside defensive end and I think he’ll be a good kid at the point of attack . ... Aaron gives us a little bit different dimension. He’s a bigger kid, a widebody that we don’t really have in our program right now."
Sweet’s unit isn’t feeble either. The nation’s second ranked center, four-star Tommy Hatton, is poised to provide much needed depth at a position that has just a single scholarship player, Lucas Crowley.
"When you’re looking for offensive tackles, you’re looking for length, great feet, great balance, (William's) got all the tools you want," offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. "The one thing you see as you watch film on Tommy, you continue to see him finishing blocks, going to the whistle."
Meanwhile, Nick Polino’s and Mason Veal’s signatures on Wednesday give UNC depth at offensive guard.
De-commitments and flips are the nature of recruiting nowadays and UNC was far from immune to it during the 2015 recruiting cycle – both good and bad.
The good: UNC flipped Jake Bargas from Wake Forest, Prentice McKinney from Notre Dame, and Strowbridge from Kentucky.
The bad: McKinney’s life on UNC’s commitment list lasted two weeks. He switched to Oklahoma on Signing Day. He was the third safety prospect to flip on UNC – Ronnie Harrison was lost to Alabama, while Jamele Johnson chose Texas (and then Texas Tech). There was also five-star tight end Chris Clark, who opened up his recruitment almost immediately after committing to UNC, and lineman Emanuel McGirt. whose UNC commitment lasted under two months. Furthermore, athlete Javaris Davis and UNC mutually decided to part ways.
UNC was able to ward off advances from Power 5 programs and keep J.K. Britt, Andre Smith, Sweet, and Ty’Son Williams in the fold (more on that below).
A coaching staff’s most impassable weapon in the battle to protect its commitment list from poaching is midterm enrollment. The UNC coaching staff took full advantage of this by enrolling a school-record nine 2015 prospects in January.
Case in point: four of the nine early enrollees officially visited other schools as UNC pledges – J.K. Britt (Kentucky), Andre Smith (Nebraska and Wisconsin), William Sweet (Louisville, LSU, Missouri, and Tennessee), and Ty’Son Williams (Wisconsin).
At the time of their arrival, UNC’s midterm enrollees made up over half of the Tar Heels’ commitment list. In addition to Britt, Smith, Sweet, and Williams, the early enrollee faction included Dalton, Juval Mollette, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Carl Tucker, and Mason Veal.
"I've never had nine before so we were excited to get those guys in here," Fedora said. "All nine of them are taking classes, they are working out, getting to know our football team and finding out what it means to be a student-athlete at the University of North Carolina. So they're going to have a much better feel for who they are as players and as students than the new guys that get here in June."
Headliner: Jalen Dalton. Dalton isn’t only the highest ranked prospect (112th in the Scout 300 and 10th in DE rankings), he’s also a consensus top five in-state recruit that received scholarship offers from schools nationwide. He’s a little on the raw side but possesses all the tools to be a disruptive edge rusher. Enrolling in January will only help his physical maturation.
"To have a guy like that in our program really takes us to the next level," Gilmore said of Dalton. "The fact that he’s here early really will help him get an opportunity to get stronger in the weight room and learn our system. I hope that by the end of the summer he’ll be ready to compete and play."
Best in Class: William Sweet. Given his combination of ability, intelligence, and work ethic, Sweet has the potential to develop into an All-American and/or high NFL draft pick. Outside of Dalton, Sweet is UNC’s highest ranked prospect (127th in the Scout 300 and 13th in OT rankings). There was a reason UNC had to fend off the likes of Auburn, LSU, Florida, Florida State, and Georgia until the day he enrolled in classes at UNC.
"When he gets time in the weight room with Lou, his strength and all the tools he has, he’s really going to excel quickly," Kapilovic said. "He got here three weeks ago and he's already gained 17 pounds, which is amazing. He came in at 268, he's already at 285. He'll be 300 pounds by the summer."
Sleeper Pick: Mike Hughes. It’s tough to consider the quarterback of the undefeated, NCHSAA 4A State Champions and a Shrine Bowl starting cornerback a sleeper, but Hughes’s rankings (No. 70 CB, No. 11 in N.C.) don’t match up with his football abilities and accomplishments – not to mention how effortlessly he picks up positions on the football field. Sooner rather than later, he should be quite a force in UNC’s secondary, while also being a weapon in offensive plays the staff devises for his playmaking ability.
"That was a big get for us - we think Mike is the best athlete in the state," Fedora said. "When I flew in and saw him play and you look at his film -- if you haven't seen it yet you need to look at it because he's pretty special. ... We're going to start him out at corner and as he learns that and gets more comfortable with that, we can throw him on the other side of the ball - and he's a return specialist as well."
Immediate Contributor: Andre Smith. Although it hasn’t been formally announced, new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik will be switching UNC’s base defensive scheme to a 4-3. In that setup, UNC’s defense will field three true linebackers – as opposed to two in the prior scheme – much more often in the seasons to come and thus there will be increased playing opportunities for ‘backers on the roster. Regardless, Smith is just too talented to keep off the field whether it’s seeing reps on defense or on special teams. Playing for a national football power and enrolling early should ease his transition.
(Quotes courtesy GoHeelsTV)
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