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July 26, 2010

Off-field distractions looming over Tar Heels

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- When North Carolina players and coaches discussed potential distractions a month ago, they were referring to the excitement around campus surrounding one of the most highly anticipated seasons in the last three decades.

Not anymore.

Not since North Carolina became one of the schools most prominently mentioned in the growing NCAA investigation into improper contact between players and agents.

NCAA officials reportedly are looking into whether defensive tackle Marvin Austin and wide receiver Greg Little received illegal benefits from agents. Austin, a second-team All-ACC performer last season, is one of a handful of potential first-round picks on a star-studded defense. Little caught 62 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns last season to lead the Tar Heels in all three categories.

North Carolina coach Butch Davis admitted last week that the investigation had come "out of left field." Davis didn't go into much more detail Monday during his ACC Media Days session at the Grandover Resort. He noted NCAA officials had advised him that investigators could work much more quickly if they don't have to sift through a bunch of comments in the media.

"Right now, the ball is certainly in [the NCAA's] court," Davis said. "They've done their role. We've done our role. Now you just wait until further notice."

North Carolina players have tried to downplay the impact of the reports as much as possible. They have expressed confidence that the investigation won't result in any suspensions or dismissals.

"As of right now, all the guys on the team are taking this and going into the season as if we're going to be at full strength," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "We can't be thinking any other thing because we just don't want it to affect us. If we focus too much on the other stuff going on, I think it will distract us from what our goals are as a team."

Either way, the Tar Heels can ill afford these types of distractions as they get ready for a highly anticipated Sept. 4 season opener with LSU at the Georgia Dome.

"We're just really looking forward to training camp and getting back into a football mindset," defensive end Robert Quinn said.

Even before the news of this investigation broke, UNC was garnering plenty of preseason attention. The presence of a potentially elite defense has raised hopes that the Tar Heels could contend for their first ACC title since 1980.

The hype surrounding North Carolina began as soon as Austin, Quinn, linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, cornerback Kendric Burney and free safety Deunta Williams announced they were staying in school instead of entering the draft. All are projected as high draft picks.

But the glowing reports that accompanied the Tar Heels in the spring have been replaced by unwanted headlines this summer.

First came the arrest two weeks ago of Sturdivant, a first-team All-ACC pick who faces a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. Then came the news that Austin and Little were part of an NCAA investigation.

Davis must decide how to punish Sturdivant. Now he also is awaiting word on whether the NCAA hands down any punishment in the agent probe. In the meantime, he's trying to make sure his players are prepared for any scenario.

"You deal with the anticipation of the unexpected," Davis said. "I can't tell you today what the weather's going to be like for any of our games. Are we going to play in a driving rainstorm? Is there going to be sleet? Bad weather? Are we going to get bad officiating calls? I can't tell you.

"All I can tell you is that we tell our players that when [you're] in the face of adversity, how are you going to handle it?"

The agent issue has been a major focus of the ACC Media Days session, just as it dominated the opening day of the SEC Media Days. Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus, South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders and former Florida center Maurkice Pouncey also have been mentioned as subjects of investigations.

ACC commissioner John Swofford said Sunday that he believed league schools were doing a good job of educating student-athletes on the rules regarding contact with agents.

"I think our athletes know what's acceptable and what's not acceptable," he said.

Davis noted that his players meet with coaches, compliance officers and outside entities multiple times each year to learn about what is and isn't permitted under NCAA regulations. Still, Davis said the school would review its procedures to improve the way it educates players on this issue.

During his Sunday question-and-answer session with reporters, Swofford suggested re-evaluating the NCAA regulations on this issue and enacting tougher sanctions on rogue agents. He also encouraged prosecuting and suspending any students that serve as runners and violate state law.

Though he wasn't willing to comment much on this specific investigation, Davis was willing to talk about the agent issue in general.

"I don't think there's any one single group that can solve this problem," he said. "I don't think the NCAA can. I don't think institutions can. I think it's going to take a cooperative effort out of a lot of people. I think there's going to be a certain element of help we can get from the NFL. You can get a certain amount of help from the players' association. You can get a certain amount of assistance from the agents themselves [by] policing themselves. One thing is there are a lot of very good agents. There are some who have a tremendous amount of credibility and character and who have the best interest of the kid involved and would never try to put a kid in this situation. Agents can certainly do some of it. Institutions. Compliance people. Coaches. Players. Parents.

"There are a lot of people who need to be co-opted into making this. I don't think this is something that just manifested itself in the last 60 days."

If there's any benefit to this situation, it may be that the questions surrounding the investigation will reduce the overwhelming hype that was surrounding a team not accustomed to competing for BCS bids.

Even though no suspensions have been handed down, the outside expectations surrounding this team already may have dropped. The preseason media poll that came Monday had North Carolina finishing fourth in the ACC Coastal Division. Only two of the 98 voters picked the Tar Heels to win the conference title.

Maybe that's just the incentive the Tar Heels need as they try to put the off-field problems out of their minds.

"[The agent issue] is a distraction, but we're looking at it as we're already taking our adversity for the season," Yates said. "Once we get over this little speed bump, we can put it all behind us and just go forward for the season."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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