Future Tar Heels Bond At Shrine Bowl

SPARTANBURG, S.C. –--- Eight. Count ‘em – eight, and possibly more to come. That's how many 2006 North Carolina football commitments were chosen for the 69th annual Shrine Bowl. This week's practice has been an excellent opportunity for them to become better acquainted.

And apparently, the leader of the group has already been established.

Who needs a media liaison when you've got Jacksonville White Oak's Deunta Williams around? A quick word and he'll have all of the UNC verbals assembled in no time.

"I guess they look up to me," Williams said. "I've always been in that kind of role, so it's nothing really new as far as that. I just try to set the example. I try to be positive and try to help our class be the best that we can be."

When someone on Tuesday tripped the fire alarm at the Marriott where the Tarheels are staying, Charlotte Independence wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said he knew his future teammates had speed and quickness, but he expected to first take full witness on the practice field.

"We cleared out so quick," laughed Nicks, who is coming off his MVP performance last Saturday in the state title game. "I've known some of them for a while, but now that I've got to spend a whole week with them, I can tell they're real cool. We all have a good relationship."

Since 2000, 21 future Carolina scholarship players have been chosen for the game, but UNC only had three selected last season – Cooter Arnold (Davie Co.), Darius Massenburg (Roanoke Rapids) and Bryan Dixon (S. Columbus).

"I just can't believe how good of a recruiting class we've got coming in, especially from what I've seen here," said Ryan Taylor of Winston-Salem Mt. Tabor. "I'm just so excited about coming to Carolina next year, because we're just going to have so much talent."

Clemson is second behind UNC with five current commits on Shrine Bowl rosters, including Asheville's Crezdon Butler. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels appear to be still in the mix for or showing interest in at least five other uncommitted honorees, including Josh Adams (Cary), Norman Whitley (Richmond Co.), Antoinne McNeill, (E. Carteret) Aleric Mullins (E. Wake) of N.C. and Dekoda Watson (S. Aiken) of S.C.

"It's just been an honor to play with such great players," Richmond Co.'s Tavares Brown said. "It's just awesome that we've got a lot of commits for UNC and to play with these guys you're going to spend the next four or five years with."

Brown, errantly rumored to be rethinking his UNC commitment, said it feels like "back home" when he's hanging out with his future collegiate teammates.

"I'm ready (to play at UNC)," Brown said. "From the first day of practice, it was like we knew each other for ages. It's only been like five or six days, but it seems like we've known each other for a long time."

(L to R) Burney, McNeill, Randall, Nicks, Taylor, Ingersoll, Williams

And not only have the players been hanging out away from the game, this week has enabled them to garner first-hand respect for the individual skills each one brings to the game. Not only that, it's brought out fierce challenges between them representative of the ones they'll experience vying for playing time in the coming years.

"On the field, we've been going at each other," SW Onslow's Kendric Burney said. "But off the field, it's like one of the best family bonds we could have. Getting to know each other before we get to college is big, because when we get there we won't be shy. We'll already have everything worked out."

The Carolina football program reasserted itself within its state's borders with respect to recruiting this year, nailing down pledges from nine of the Top 25 N.C. prospects per Scout.com; while maintaining position to increase the tally before Signing Day.

"It's really been a lot of fun," said Morgan Randall of Greenville Rose. "We have more UNC commits than any other school here and we all just kind of stick together. It's really a great thing to have. I know I'm trading phone numbers and we're all going to stay in touch until we get there. We're really going to bond and be a team before we're officially a team."

The Tarheels take on the Sandlappers of S.C. in a battle between the best high school football players in the Carolinas on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. from Gibbs Stadium on the campus of Wofford College.

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