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October 6, 2011
Batten: Talent in the Trenches
North Carolina has been known at times during its football history for producing 1,000-yard rushers and top-notch linebackers.
But since the late 1980s, the Tar Heels have been able to attract a steady stream of defensive linemen to Chapel Hill. A total of 25 defensive ends or tackles who played for UNC since 1988 have been selected in the National Football League draft, including seven over the past five years.
Many in that group, like Greg Ellis, Vonnie Holliday, Ryan Sims, Russell Davis and, of course, Julius Peppers, have gone on to lengthy, successful professional careers.
Expectations are that Quinton Coples, Tydreke Powell, Sylvester Williams, Donte Paige-Moss and Kareem Martin from UNC's current defensive front will soon continue that tradition.
The trend makes the Tar Heels unique in a time when many programs are struggling to recruit enough quality talent at those positions to survive a major-college season.
In fact, teams like East Carolina and Wake Forest have made the transition to 3-4 alignments over the past year in large part because they didn't have the talent and depth at end and tackle to effectively execute a four-man front.
"They are among the toughest positions to recruit,'' UNC coach Everett Withers said earlier this week. "The tackles especially are tough. Trying to find guys that are big enough and strong enough inside that can stop the run, but also rush inside, that's always tough.
"The ends, they are a premium when you can find guys who can run and rush the passer.''
Withers, who served as defensive coordinator before being elevated to interim coach in July, said defensive lineman are annually at the top of UNC's recruiting board.
"It's on our radar every year and is talked about every day in our recruiting meetings,'' Withers said. "The big deal with our success is our staff has gotten out and scoured the country, the East Coast and the region to identify guys early.''
A case in point is the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Coples, who analysts expect to be the first defensive end taken in next year's NFL Draft.
The Tar Heels targeted Coples as a top prospect even before seeing him in their summer camp as a sophomore. UNC was one of the first schools to offer a scholarship and were able to keep Coples interested during the coaching transition from John Bunting to Butch Davis.
Like many of UNC's defensive linemen, Coples fit a certain profile.
"Obviously, you want height and long arms,'' said Withers, who was not involved in Coples' recruitment. "You also like guys with toughness, guys who have tremendous work ethic and the desire to get to the quarterback.
"You have to be a physical kid. I think that's probably the biggest thing. We want guys who can learn, and who are aggressive and physical.''
Luckily, the Tar Heels reside in a state that has become quite prominent in producing defensive line prospects.
Twelve of those 25 defensive linemen selected from UNC in the NFL Draft since '88 attended North Carolina high schools. Nine of the current defensive lineman on the Tar Heel roster are also in-state products, including Coples (Kinston), Powell (Ahoskie), Martin (Roanoke Rapids), Paige-Moss (Jacksonville).
Although North Carolina sent its share of defensive linemen into the major college ranks before him, Julius Peppers' success at UNC and the NFL prompted a whole new generation of in-state athletes to convert from basketball to football. Peppers made it popular for athletes in the 6-5 to 6-7 range to choose star status in football over being average basketball prospects.
"You walk around some of these high schools and there are 6-4 and 6-5 guys who think they are point guards, but they can't handle the ball,'' Withers said. "They get frustrated, then they start playing football because a coach got them out there. They are raw and you have to be patient with them. But we have taken tall guys, gotten them here in our strength and conditioning program and they have become good players for us.''
The Tar Heels have already secured an verbal commitment from another defensive end with potential for the Class of 2012.
Jessie Rogers, a 6-4, 240-pound from Arlington, Texas, committed in mid-September over offers from Arizona, Arkansas, Baylor, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
Based on Withers' comments, and history, Rogers won't be the last defensive lineman to join the UNC recruiting class.