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February 24, 2012Browsing the list of players attending the 2012 National Football League Combine being conducted this week in Indianapolis, I realized six Tar Heels are participating in what is undoubtedly the most significant pre-draft event.
The fact that cornerback Charles Brown, linebacker Zach Brown, defensive end Quinton Coples, wide receiver Dwight Jones, defensive end Donte Paige-Moss and defensive tackle Tydreke Powell all received invites is a testament to the talent in the UNC program.
The number was the second-highest among Atlantic Coast Conference schools, just behind Miami which sent eight players to the combine.
Of course, considering five of those potential draft picks played on UNC's defensive unit, I'm wondering why the Tar Heels were so mediocre on that side of the ball last season. But I digress. That's a story for another day.
Most of the pre-draft predictions I've seen have Coples pegged as the No. 1 defensive end available in the draft and a sure-fire top 10 pick. Many of those same projections have Zach Brown being selected late in the first round. I expect that rating will improve once the NFL scouts watch Brown turn one of his sub 4.4-second 40-yard dashes at the combine.
Jones' stock took a hit due to his subpar performance at the Senior Bowl all-star game, but he could recover with a strong effort at the combine. Most predictions have Jones being selected in or around the third round.
Powell is expected to be taken between the fourth and fifth rounds, while Brown and Paige-Moss are likely sixth or seventh rounders, according to the mock drafts.
If those predictions become reality, this will be one of the best draft classes in North Carolina football history. Only five other times have the Tar Heels had six or more players drafted by NFL teams in a single year.
The standard was set last June when nine UNC players were selected. Four of those went in the first two rounds, including first-round defensive end Robert Quinn to the St. Louis Rams. Marvin Austin, a second-round pick, actually picked up a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants, even though he was injured and didn't play most of the season.
Three other years produced seven Tar Heel draftees, the most recent coming in 1998 when a record three Tar Heels were chosen in the first round. Defensive end Greg Ellis went to Dallas, defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday was taken by the Green Bay Packers and the Cincinnati Bengals tabbed linebacker Brian Simmons that year.
North Carolina also had seven players selected in the 1949 and 1959 NFL drafts, but the third round was the earliest any of those Tar Heels were taken.
The 2002 draft class, featuring first-rounders Julius Peppers (Carolina Panthers) and Ryan Sims (Kansas City Chiefs), also produced six picks.
Speaking of first-round picks, North Carolina has had 19 players selected in that elite realm through the years. Do you remember who was the first player from UNC taken in the first round? I'll answer that one in a minute.
Looking ahead to the 2013 NFL Draft, the Tar Heels could again be well represented.
Rising seniors Travis Bond at offensive guard, Jonathan Cooper at offensive guard, Erik Highsmith at wide receiver, linebacker Kevin Reddick, offensive tackle Brennan Williams and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams are all regarded as NFL prospects.
So is rising junior Kareem Martin, who some believe would be among the first defensive ends picked if he came out early. The same is true of left offensive tackle James Hurst, who'll enter his third year as a starter at UNC next fall.
OK, now back to UNC's first first rounder.
That honor went to running back Ken Willard, who piled up 1,949 yards rushing between 1962 and 1964 for the Tar Heels.
The 6-foot-1, 219-pounder was taken with the second pick of the 1965 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers ahead of two future Hall of Famers in Dick Butkus and Gayle Sayers.
Willard, who also starred in baseball at UNC, went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL where he earned All-Pro honors four times.
The next first-rounder for the Tar Heels came in 1971 when the great Don McCauley was taken by the Baltimore Colts. Four years later, the Colts also grabbed offensive guard Ken Huff in the first round.
Before leaving the subject of the draft until it actually occurs next June, I found it interesting in looking back at UNC's draft history that the school has produced four centers who became NFL starters - Rick Donnalley (still one of the strongest human beings I've ever seen), Harris Barton, Jeff Saturday and Jason Brown.
Let's hope more careers like those develop among the six current players competing for draft status at the NFL Combine this week.