CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – By the time Signing Day arrived on Wednesday, North Carolina’s 2016 recruiting class had long since been completed outside of a handful of late decisions. The prospects’ signed national letters of intent, delivered by text nowadays instead of the archaic fax machine, were a mere formality for the majority.
Roughly a third of Larry Fedora’s fifth recruiting class enrolled on Jan. 11, continuing a growing trend of high school football players skipping out on prom and senioritis to get a head start on their college careers. The first letter of intent arrived on Signing Day at 7:01am, courtesy of Winter Garden, Fla., defensive end Nolan DeFranco. The second letter of intent arrived mere seconds later, also at 7:01am officially, from Jay Jay McCargo, an offensive lineman hailing from Alexandria, Va.
McCargo committed to UNC on Apr. 25. DeFranco, the seventh prospect to join the recruiting class, committed on June 16. In fact, 15 members of Fedora’s 2016 recruiting class made their pledges to wear Carolina blue before UNC kicked off its breakthrough 2015 season against South Carolina on Sept. 3.
Such is the trajectory of a recruiting cycle that begins long before Signing Day. After signing his first full class at UNC in Feb. 2013, Fedora told reporters his staff had spent the previous 13 months, dating back to his official hire in Dec. 2012, building relationships and determining the quality of character of the kids available to them. By that evening, he had already spoken to 100 juniors, highlighting the life span of recruiting classes.
Former UNC head coach Butch Davis believed the recruiting process was an 18-month ordeal, starting in the summer prior to a prospect’s junior season in high school and concluding on Signing Day. On Wednesday, Fedora told reporters his staff started recruiting certain players in his current 26-man class more than 24 months ago.
The longer Fedora grows roots in Chapel Hill, the earlier the jump his staff will be able to get on promising local recruits.
Due to the lengthy scope of the process, UNC’s 11-3 record and ACC Coastal Division championship in 2015 occurred late in the 2016 recruiting cycle, long after player-coach relationships had been established and early commitments had been made.
While Wednesday’s immense hype and accompanying festivities celebrated the conclusion of the 2016 recruiting class, it does not represent final harvest of last fall. If anything, it provided a bump heading into Signing Day and not the avalanche that some may have anticipated.
“Winning helps in every aspect of the program, but definitely in recruiting,” Fedora said. “I think towards the end of the year, you felt that bump, and I think you’re going to feel that bump on into the 2017 class and the 2018 class. These ’17 guys were juniors in high school and they’re watching Carolina do something pretty special.”
Recruiting spiels grows monotonous over time, ranging from the new coaching staff selling the future to the entrenched coaching staff looking for that one last recruit to elevate their team to the next level. The letters and lectures ring hollow with tangible evidence, which is what UNC’s coaching staff believes it delivered in 2015.
“I think it’s going to be huge for the future,” offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. “I think you see some doors opening and some success in the 2017 class. A lot of these kids that we signed today were already committed before the season even started, so I think it helped confirm their commitments and I think it has also opened some doors for the next couple of years, for sure.”
UNC has already landed a quartet of four-star recruits for 2017 in defensive end Jake Lawler, offensive guard Jonah Melton and wide receivers J.T. Cauthren and Tyler Smith. That’s twice as many four stars as UNC signed in its 2016 class, thereby fueling the best start of a recruiting cycle during the Fedora era.