North Carolina wide receiver Greg Little didn't play at all in 2010 but managed to run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds at 6-3 and 220 pounds. (Jim Hawkins/InsideCarolina.com)
Historically a basketball school, not a football school, North Carolina might have had as much pure talent as any program in the country this past season had defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin and wide receiver Greg Little been on the field.
That certainly appeared to be the case Thursday, when Quinn, Austin and Little were among 19 prospects participating in a Pro Day witnessed by almost 100 NFL scouts.
In 2009, Quinn registered 52 tackles, 11 sacks and two forced fumbles as a sophomore. Austin was credited with 42 tackles, four sacks and one forced fumble as a junior. Also a junior, Little caught 62 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns, plus he added 29 carries for 166 yards and another TD.
However, Austin was dismissed from Chapel Hill for "violations of NCAA agent benefits, preferential treatment and ethical conduct rules," stemming from an investigation about handouts the 6-2, 309-pounder received while traveling to Florida and California. Quinn and Little, on the other hand, were ruled permanently ineligible by the collegiate game's governing body, as both were found to be the beneficiaries of $5,000 or so in jewelry and travel accommodations to Miami.
Highly ranked before the start of the 2010 campaign and expected to compete for an ACC title and a BCS bowl, the Tar Heels dropped their first two games en route to an 8-5 record and finished third in the Coastal Division.
That doesn't change the fact that Quinn, Austin and Little can compete with the big boys on Sunday. Quinn is destined to be selected in the first 10 picks of April's NFL Draft. Austin is falling to the second round in many mocks, but talent alone -- not to mention an eye-opening performance last month at the Scouting Combine -- suggests he belongs in Round 1. While Little is being graded like a third or fourth rounder right now, his 6-3, 220-pound frame is ideal for the modern-day air attack. By all accounts, the trio did well for themselves in front of the likes of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Bears coach Lovie Smith.
After the workout, Quinn admitted it's been difficult to ignore all the draftniks breaking down his game and trying to assess his ability in the evaluation process.
"I'll be honest," he said. "I've looked at it a couple of times here and there. Like I said, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You only get drafted once, so I'm just curious what people are saying. It's kind of motivates me when I see something negative and kind of puts a smile on my face when I see something positive."
|"Like I said, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You only get drafted once."|
Austin, who didn't shy away from the media at the combine and was again contrite when speaking with reporters, has had to deal with having his integrity questioned.
"Extremely hard," he said. "I was always known before then to be an outgoing, gregarious guy that had fun and was cheerful. And I think when I made that bad decision, people looked at it as a chance to poke at me, prick at me, and try to break me down. It was extremely hard being questioned about some of the things that I love to do. Being questioned, 'Does he love the game? Does he want to be a professional?' My work ethic and stuff like that. And all I could do every time I had a chance to go out and perform is to get better."
Nobody would have blamed North Carolina coach Butch Davis had he spent most of the session playing yet another round of "what if?" with regard to Quinn and Austin.
"We did that plenty of times earlier," he said, "but it was fun to watch them [Thursday]. "I thought that they did a terrific job. I think everyone was very impressed. They were explosive. They were powerful. You can tell that they had really put themselves in position to have a great workout [Thursday], and I think all of those guys really understood over the last couple of years how important it is to continue that momentum because a lot of guys kind of shut down the training after the combine and they kind of rested on their laurels after the season. And I think all of our guys did a really, really good job in the position-specific drills they did in front of all of those coaches, and I think it was impressive. There was a pretty significant group of defensive line coaches and defensive coordinators that were there [Thursday] that were looking specifically because we've got a pretty good group of defensive players out there, and I thought Robert and Marvin both did a really good job."
Davis, who was an assistant coach with the Cowboys from 1989-94 and head coach of the Browns from 2001-04, knows something about making the leap from college to the pros and put Quinn, Austin and Little in position to do just that.
"One of the things that you keep hearing from the NFL scouts is that they love coming and watching our video and tape of our kids," he said, "because what we do schematically -- offensively, defensively and on special teams -- is almost a carbon copy of what all 32 teams do in the National Football League,"
At 6-4 and 265 pounds, Quinn might be a prototype pass-rushing outside linebacker in the 3-4 and could go as high as No. 3 overall to the Bills, and he probably doesn't fall any lower than seventh to the 49ers. Austin can be a terror as a three-technique tackle for a 4-3 team, so the Bears, who pick 29th, have to think about sliding him into the position left behind by the pink-slipped Tommie Harris. And while Little doesn't have a highlight reel on par with Georgia's A.J. Green or Alabama's Julio Jones, he plays receiver with a running back's mentality -- reminiscent of three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin.
Usually in the NFL, major on-the-field upside tends to trump minor off-the-field trouble, and fortunately these three Tar Heels appear to have learned their lesson.
|John Crist is an NFL analyst for Scout.com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.|