Carolina's football camps beneficial to all

North Carolina offers one of the most highly respected and successful football camp programs around, as the long list of notable former participants and their high school coaches will attest.

There are as many as five camps each summer: Team Camp, Individual Camp, Tar Heel Junior Camp, One-Day Camp and Two-Day Camp -- the latter usually attended by the most highly-touted prospects.

Among a list of campers that have included ‘Dre Bly, Julius Peppers, David Thornton, Natrone Means and many other NFL household names, perhaps no one took any more advantage of his days at UNC camp than 2004 defensive end signee Kentwan Balmer.

Virtually hidden at tiny 1-A Weldon High School, Balmer was a ‘big fish in a small pond,' as Chargers coach Grady Williams puts it. But by the time the 6-foot-5, 250-pound rising senior got on the UNC campus, both Balmer and the Tar Heel coaches could see it was a match made in Carolina Blue Heaven.

"It was beneficial, because it showed them what I could do and that I was prepared for the next level; and, I also learned at the camp, so during the off-season, that helped me out a lot," Balmer said.

Julius Peppers
UNC coaches were so impressed by Balmer's potential, they offered him a scholarship just a few days after he had returned home from camp. And Balmer, who grew up a Carolina fan, was so enamored by campus, the players and coaches that he accepted almost immediately.

"My last day was the most typical, because I got to mingle a lot with the players and talk a lot with the coaching staff," Balmer said. "That kind of made me feel like I was part of the Carolina family already."

Williams added, "Kentwan was excited about the exposure he got after he went down there. His drive was unbelievable. He's always been a Carolina fan, but he just had the drive to be there. That was his focus.

"The camp really opened the doors for him. They got a chance to see him, time him and get great looks at him, without him being knowledgeable that they were looking at him."

But camp is no vacation, and certainly not a love fest. The coaches are focused on providing players with tools they can work on well after camp is over, while at the same time evaluating potential UNC prospects.

It's not just a recruiting tool for the Tar Heels, either. In fact, many non-Division I coaches attend in order to scout potential prospects that might not get recruited by or be able to attend UNC.

However, in the case of Balmer and many others, Carolina has been able to benefit greatly in and around camp time from a recruiting standpoint.

"Traditionally, we have been able to do that," said UNC assistant coach Ken Browning. "It's been a period of time when you get to know the kid and visa versa. I think that something that is sometimes overlooked in recruiting [is] guys making commitments before they are even around a coach. Unless he's been around him enough in another setting, I think that's difficult to make the best decision.

"After camp, we probably had more success in and around camp than a lot of schools probably."

Browning said one reason the UNC camps have been so beneficial, and one that high school coaches have come to rely on, is that they coach them hard, teach them and don't limit that just to potential Division I players.

"We have a lot of the Shrine Bowl coaches that work our camp," Browning said. "When I was coaching in the Shrine Bowl, I would come to this camp just to evaluate some of the guys that were here. It helped me make some decisions."

Coaches from Division I-AA, Division II, and Division III schools also work the camps, and are constantly finding players that may not wind up at the Division I level, but still end up getting scholarships out of the camp. According to Browning, that's been a part of the camp that is often overlooked.

Kentwan Balmer
"There are so many factors in camp, in terms of benefits for a young guy," Browning said. "They're just trying to become better football players. I think we're fierce in our attempt to help them -- fundamentally and technique-wise -- to become better football players. We practice three times a day; it's not a baby-sitting deal. It's hard work and it's really important to us that they leave here as better players."

Balmer is a walking testament to that statement.

"It was real tiring, but it helped you get accustomed to what you have to look forward to in college," Balmer said. "I felt like by constantly working at those exercises, it would make me better as a freshman."

But from the hard work, and in Balmer's case an almost immediate offer, came increased confidence from newfound knowledge.

"His confidence went from one level to another level," Williams said.

Veteran high school coach Earl Smith, who begins his first season at Wake Forest-Rolesville this fall, has been taking his teams to the UNC camp for the last five years. A coach at Millbrook for 18 years, he took his last two teams from there, two teams from New Hanover, and he plans to take his new team this year as well.

"I started doing it about five years ago, but I wish I had started doing it earlier," Smith said. "There are a lot of team camps, but Coach Browning has been instrumental in organizing the camps over the years. The thing that he does is, he tries to make it worthwhile for the high school coaches and their players. The way it's structured; it's pretty neat. In the mornings, they get an individual period with the actual Carolina staff -- just like they would if they were going to an individual camp."

The high school coaches are allowed to bring their assistants, and they all join a station to help out during on-the-field drills and instruction. Then, in the afternoons and at night, there are seven-on-seven segment meetings.

Coaches get more involved, and that is what makes the UNC camps unique. Also, the participants spend the night and get more involved with the coaches and current players.

"A lot of people don't want to do that, but I think it helps from a bonding issue," Smith said. "You're eating your meals together in the cafeteria…you're very busy, you're working, eating and sleeping in a compact three days, which is perfect.

"The great thing about it is you get so many reps in; more than you would normally get. This is continuous, the kids get so many reps in, it helps them tremendously."

Smith and Browning, as he does with countless high school coaches, go way back. Smith's first job was as an assistant under Browning at Northern Durham from 1976-79. He then took his first head coaching position at Ledford in Thomasville.

Browning, twice named the Associated Press N.C. High School Coach of the Year (1992 & 1993), said having the high school coaches participate, in turn, makes the program even more effective.

"The high school coaches help me a lot, because I've got a relationship with a lot of them." Browning said. "Actually, I think I know a lot about what they want and what their kids can gain from camp. I've got enough of them close to me that they are constantly giving me ideas. It's just input; I think I may have some better input than at some [other] places."

The first of the five Tar Heel Football Camps begins on June 9. For more information, call (919) 942-9747.

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