Andy: This was no '2002 Deja Vu'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – This recruiting season has already been admonished by some fans as UNC coach John Bunting's potential undoing; ‘A.J. Davis II,' they say. But the Tar Heels' 2004 Signing Day class is again of Top 20 caliber. That's two years in a row; and that's exactly what the Carolina program and its fourth-year coach had to have.

Click here for John Bunting's Signing Day quotes; and here for a look at the 2004 signee capsules.

Granted the Hargrave Four – defensive linemen Terry Hunter, Khalif Mitchell, Kenny Price and Marcus Hands have made up a substantial part of both last year's and this year's class rankings; but this year's remaining signees have filled considerable holes of depth, especially on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield.

Hunter and Mitchell are already enrolled at UNC, while Price is a straight-A student at Hargrave Military Academy and will start classes this summer. However it appears Hands may still be struggling with his academic qualification.

As the hopes for "cherries on the cake" – as Bunting put it – in the form of Demario Pressley and Marque Hall fell by the wayside, the follow through of all of UNC's top rated commitments like Trimane Goddard, Martel Thatch, Stephen Green and Calvin Darity came to fruition.

There was no singing of "Life in the Fast Lane" this year by NC State coach and amateur crooner Chuck Amato. The Pack did get the final laugh with Pressley's signing, but its overall class was otherwise ordinary at best. And in the meantime, the replacement of quarterback Philip Rivers will make for an incredible challenge.

"Demario Pressley and Marque Hall were guys that we went down to the wire for," Bunting said. "But I'll let other people dwell on losing those two. I'm fired up about what is coming into this football program. We filled needs. When you get a Terry Hunter and a Kentwan Balmer in your football program, you better get excited. These are great defensive linemen coming in here right now, and they're following on the heels of the Shelton Bynums and the Isaiah Thomas's."

In the meantime, the Tar Heels don't have to worry much about their offense, with most players returning, including multiple-school record holder Darian Durant.

If for no other reason than it couldn't get any worse following a 5-19 record over the past two seasons, Carolina will be better this year.

Factor in the addition of powerhouse programs' Miami and Virginia Tech to the Tar Heels' perennially murderous schedule, and it's once again hard to find wins after the season home opener with William and Mary.

But as the league gets tougher, Bunting's expectations get bigger – and so do the fans'.

"I'm not talking about an NCAA championship just yet, but we've gotten better and better," Bunting said. "In a year or two, we want to be shooting for that ACC title, and then year after year, playing in a BCS bowl game and shooting for a national title."

Still talk is relatively cheap, and judgment on Bunting's crucial fourth-season will not pass without a significant improvement in the Tar Heels' 2004 win total. As beloved as the UNC alum, former Super Bowl player and coach is at Carolina, fans proved last season that school nepotism will only take Bunting so much farther.

It's hard to believe that Bunting had any idea of how difficult his job would become when he signed on to become Carl Torbush's successor in December of 2000, or how fickle the fanbase could become. One might also say that UNC basketball coach Roy Williams is experiencing a similar plight.

Things are getting much tougher, but they're are also on the mend at UNC. With Wednesday's announcement that UNC Athletics Director Dick Baddour will be retained, Bunting's security gets another boost.

Perhaps had the announcement of Baddour's contract extension come two days earlier, the Tar Heels could have landed Pressley and Hall. But that is only speculation, even though UNC's administrative stability likely played a part in each of their decisions.

So with the competition rapidly improving around him and his detractors circling, Bunting may have to raise his program in a sort of vacuum to avoid distraction by this upcoming year's critics. There is no doubt the offense and defense will be improved next year, but whether or not the Tar Heels can keep up with the rest of the ACC will remain to be seen.

And if they can't, recruiting could suffer; even though it hasn't yet when you consider UNC's recent win-loss tally.

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