Football

UNC’s NFL draft pipeline runs dry, years after Butch Davis firing

Between 2008 and 2014 - Butch Davis was the head coach from 2007 through 2010 - no ACC school had more players selected in the NFL draft’s first round than UNC.
Between 2008 and 2014 - Butch Davis was the head coach from 2007 through 2010 - no ACC school had more players selected in the NFL draft’s first round than UNC. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The college-to-NFL pipeline that Butch Davis laid in Chapel Hill had started to dry long ago, and now North Carolina has appeared to squeeze the last remaining talent out of it in the years after it fired Davis in the summer of 2011 amid an NCAA investigation.

The Davis era is most remembered for how it ended, in part because of that investigation into violations that led to scholarship cuts and a one-year postseason ban, among other penalties, and in part because the Tar Heels under Davis didn’t accomplish anything all that memorable on the field.

UNC still hasn’t won more than eight games since 1997, and it hasn’t won an ACC championship since 1980. For a while, though, the Tar Heels churned out first-round NFL draft picks with the best of them – seven first-rounders since the 2008 draft.

The NFL draft began Thursday night and, in recent years, that was a cause for celebration at UNC. A UNC player was selected in the first round of the past four drafts and two UNC players – Jonathan Cooper and Sylvester Williams – went in the first round in 2013.

This year, though, the streak ended. More troubling, UNC didn’t have a player selected in any of the seven rounds. It was the first time that’s happened since 2007.

The 2007 draft, if you remember, was the one that came not long after John Bunting’s final season as UNC’s head coach. The Tar Heels finished the 2006 season 3-9, Bunting was fired and the draft illustrated one of the program’s primary problems: a clear lack of talent, at least among draft-eligible players.

Davis fixed that in a hurry. From 2008 to 2014 – Davis was the head coach from 2007 through 2010 – no school in the ACC had more players selected in the first round than UNC.

The Tar Heels’ seven first-round draft picks during that span is one more than Florida State and one more than than Clemson and Virginia Tech combined.

During the previous seven NFL drafts, in fact, few schools nationally matched UNC, which produced the fifth-most first-round picks in that stretch. Alabama led the country with 16, followed by USC (10), Florida (nine) and LSU (eight).

After a 6-7 season and with a void of draft-eligible talent, that kind of draft success now seems a distant memory at UNC, if not necessarily surprising, given the circumstances.

The group of four-year seniors that recently left the program – a class that includes linebackers Norkeithus Otis and Travis Hughes, and defensive back Tim Scott – were a part of the final recruiting class in which Davis played a significant role.

Those players signed with UNC in February 2011 and though Davis was still around, his future was in doubt given an NCAA violations case that erupted in the summer of 2010. Rival programs had to use that uncertainty to remind recruits that Davis might not be around for long and, in time, that speculation proved correct: Davis was fired before he coached the 2011 signing class.

Despite the specter of the unknown that hung over the 2010 season, though, Davis managed to recruit a good class – at least one that was considered so at the time. Rivals.com ranked UNC’s 2011 signing class as the 16th-best in the country, and it does include players who made a lasting contribution.

Marquise Williams, the rising fifth-year senior quarterback, was in that signing class. So was Landon Turner, who this season will anchor UNC’s offensive line, and Eric Ebron, the tight end the Detroit Lions a year ago selected with the 10th overall pick in the draft.

But the 2011 class also included many players who never panned out. Some – like offensive lineman Jarrod James, who Rivals considered a four-star prospect, and defensive Tyler Alberts – were eventually medically disqualified from playing football at UNC. Others – like Darien Rankin and Shawn Underwood – left school for reasons that included academic issues.

Lost class of 2011

In some ways – and despite the inclusion of players like Ebron and Williams and a few others – the 2011 signing class was a lost class, one Davis put together while he tried to fend off critics and defend his integrity and keep hope that he would, in fact, survive what ultimately ended his tenure at UNC.

Looking back, it’s no wonder that UNC didn’t have a senior drafted. For one, some of the best players in the 2011 class – Ebron and Sylvester Williams, who arrived as a transfer – have already been selected.

More significant to UNC, though, is the attrition that reduced the numbers of that class. Just five members of that 25-man class entered last season – what should have been their fourth season in the program – as starters: Marquise Williams, tight end Jack Tabb, Otis, Hughes and Scott.

UNC faced a more daunting recruiting challenge while it tried to build its 2012 class. By then, potential recruits knew that Davis was gone; he was fired just before the start of preseason practice. UNC named Everett Withers its interim coach and he and his staff attempted to recruit players who knew what Withers had to know, too: that he likely wouldn’t be around to coach any of the players he was recruiting.

And indeed, Withers wasn’t. Then UNC hired Larry Fedora, who arrived in January 2012 and did what he could to recruit in the month or so before national signing day. Fedora and his staff managed to make a couple of splashes. He wooed Quinshad Davis, a receiver who has been a solid contributor in his three seasons.

Fedora also landed James Summers, a touted quarterback from Greensboro who had committed to N.C. State. Summers, though, didn’t qualify and was forced to go to junior college. He recently signed a national letter of intent at East Carolina.

Quinshad Davis, Summers and J.J. Patterson, an offensive lineman, were UNC’s highest-rated recruits in the 2012 class. Among them, only Davis is still on the team. The rest of the class includes some players who now start, though overall it’s a class that has lacked difference-makers.

Recruiting hurdles remain

The shortcomings in the 2011 and 2012 signing classes played an instrumental role in the team’s 6-7 finish a season ago. UNC was reliant more on younger players than old, and the team lacked leadership and production among its upperclassmen. Last season, it was clear that the talent pipeline that Butch Davis built had been completely tapped.

If it wasn’t clear enough then, it is now after the draft. During the past seven years, no ACC school has done a better job of producing first-round picks than UNC. And yet, still, the Tar Heels have retained their “sleeping giant” status in college football.

That is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because of the potential it implies but a curse because of the reality of the slumber. That UNC remained asleep, so to speak, is troubling, too, given the amount of talent that has come through the program in recent years.

During his first two seasons, Fedora and his staff coached teams that included three first-round picks – Cooper and Williams in 2013 and Ebron a year ago. Overall, 10 UNC players – including running back Giovani Bernard and defensive end Kareem Martin – were selected in the 2013 and ’14 draft.

This draft is a sign of how far the talent level has fallen since Butch Davis was fired and reflective, too, of two lost recruiting classes amid the NCAA investigation turmoil and the coaching transition that came with it.

The bad news, for Fedora, is that he’s still dealing with a lot of the same challenges. The NCAA last summer reopened its investigation at UNC and, once again, Fedora dealt with a torrent of negative recruiting – of rival coaches emphasizing the great unknown.

Before, at least, UNC had something to fall back on: several classes worth of players that Davis had recruited during less volatile times. Now there is no such luxury.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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