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May 11, 2006
Tar Heels leaving their mark
There are powder blue footprints all over the east coast, especially in North Carolina, during the early portion of this recruiting season.
Led by quarterback Mike Paulus, the Heels are off to their best start in ages on the recruiting trail and a perfect storm could be brewing in Chapel Hill.
The North Carolina football program has struggled since Mack Brown left for Texas almost a decade ago. Sure there has been a winning season here and there, but losing has been more consistent than winning since Brown led them to a No. 4 national ranking in 1997. And one big reason for the drought is an overall lack of talent.
Since the 2002 NFL draft, which featured two top six picks from UNC (Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims) and six overall draft picks out of Chapel Hill, things have been bleak when it comes to NFL talent. Since that draft, the highest a UNC player has been taken in the draft is 113th overall (Dexter Reid to New England in 2004), a 4th-round choice. This past draft, UNC had only one player drafted, defensive tackle Chase Page, taken by San Diego in the 7th round.
This goes back to recruiting, the foundation of any program.
Only once in the last five years has North Carolina placed in the national top 25 team rankings. The only exception is the 2003 class which finished 13th overall and is a huge part of the current team, a team that needs a winning season in a big way.
They are close to stepping out of the shadow of the UNC basketball program, at least a little bit, for the first time since Brown roamed the sidelines.
With the commitment of Paulus, one of the nation's top quarterbacks and the best signal-caller to pledge to UNC since Ronald Curry, North Carolina has momentum. Curry was the No. 1 player in the country years ago.
Paulus, from Syracuse (N.Y.) Christian Brothers, chose the Heels over Southern Cal and around 30 other programs from around the nation and gave instant national credibility to this recruiting class.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound gunslinger helped solidify the pledge of wide receiver Dwight Jones, who has been approached by programs like Florida, Miami, Georgia and Southern Cal of late, and has made UNC an instant contender for some special skill position studs.
Jones, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder who reminds some of former USC great Mike Williams, showed with his commitment there is nothing like a big-name quarterback to draw in other talent.
Huge running back Ryan Houston, who could be a Michael Bush (Louisville) clone if he keeps his weight under control, is seriously considering taking handoffs from Paulus down the road. Offensive linemen John Elliott, William Alvarez, Mason Cloy and Lamar Milstead are showing interest in blocking for him.
But while the offensive talent interested in UNC is impressive, the home-grown talent on defense in the state of North Carolina is as impressive as it's been in years.
The Heels are in great shape for strongside defensive end Travian Robertson, weakside defensive end Kevion Latham, defensive tackle Tydreke Powell and cornerback Marcus Gilchrist - arguably the best players in state at their respective positions.
A front line consisting of Robertson, Latham and Powell would bring back visions of Sims, Peppers and Gilchrist.
The overall talent in the Tar Heel State is as deep as it's been in a decade and UNC's strong start is coming at a perfect time. However, the coaches will need to help themselves off the field with a strong season on it. North Carolina is 11-12 over the last two seasons against very difficult schedules. They've had some big wins (Miami in 2004, Boston College in 2005) but have followed each with three-point losses.
This year's schedule features seven opponents who went to bowl games last season and is highlighted by tough games at Miami and Notre Dame and at home against Virginia Tech.
To keep this recruiting momentum going through the season and into Signing Day, a bowl game is a must. With a 12-game schedule, UNC can still go 6-6 and make a bowl game – a goal that is certainly attainable.
However, a statement season with seven plus wins would be what impresses recruits and potentially keeps a special class together. If you pencil in wins against Furman, Wake Forest and Duke and losses to Miami, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, that leaves the Heels needing five wins against six tough opponents – Rutgers, Clemson, South Florida, Virginia, Georgia Tech and NC State – for a 8-4 season. That's certainly no easy task, but not impossible.
If they attain seven or eight wins, with one of them coming against Miami, Virginia Tech or Notre Dame - watch out.
With everything needed to be a national power in football, a great start with two potential five-star players already committed and the best recruiting year in their home state in a decade, things could be changing in Chapel Hill.
And those power blue footprints currently seen on the east coast recruiting trail could become bigger and bigger.