Carolina On The NFL’s Mind In Draft

When sporting thoughts turn to the Carolinas, it’s basketball that comes to mind first – Tobacco Road, the Tar Heels, the Cameron Crazies, Dean Smith, Coach K, Michael Jordan, Grant Hill …

Cast in that hoops shadow has been college football. Since they started handing out national championships on the gridiron only once has a team for the Carolinas been declared No. 1 for the season – that was 1981 when Clemson beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 22-15.

But as the NFL continues its push towards the Draft at the end of April, the Carolinas are on the minds of pro football’s decision makers. Within the borders of North and South Carolina is a treasure trove of talent. This time it plays with an oblong ball and not the round ball.

“We’ve always had a lot of talent,” said Robert Quinn, a DE/OLB out of the University of North Carolina that will be an early selection in next month’s selection meeting.

Quinn will be joined by 17 other players from North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Clemson. Between those four schools are a quartet of players who should be drafted in the first round, like Quinn, Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers and North Carolina’s WR Greg Little and LB Bruce Carter.

Joining them among the 250+ players selected will be (by school):

  • Clemson – S DeAndre McDaniel, RB Jamie Harper, DT Jarvis Jenkins, CB Marcus Gilchrist and OT Chris Hairston.
  • North Carolina – ILB Quan Sturdivant, SS Da’Norris Searcy, FS Deunta Williams, DT Marvin Austin and CB Kendric Burney.
  • North Carolina State – ILB Nate Irving.
  • South Carolina – FS Chris Culliver, TE Weslye Saunders and DE Cliff Matthews.

“We have a lot of talent, we just have to get noticed a little bit more and I think with these guys coming out as deep as we are, we can get noticed a lot more,” said Jenkins, who stayed in his South Carolina backyard and went to Clemson.

“Florida and Georgia produce a lot of guys; they’re real big football states. South Carolina has the athletes, it’s just that we don’t have a legitimate powerhouse in the state that anybody knows. Other than Summerville, nobody has a national profile.”

Summerville High School in South Carolina is the home of head coach John McKissick, the living legend of a football coach who since he began coaching in 1952 has won 576 games in 59 years as head coach. That’s more than any football coach on any level in the country. That high school program also produced another potential top draft pick this year, one that got away from the Carolina schools and signed with the University of Georgia – wide receiver A.J. Green.

With all that talent on board, why was it that not a single one of those four schools competed for the national championship in the 2010 season? When the games were all done, South Carolina was ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll with its 9-5 record. Coming in at No. 25 was North Carolina State and its 9-4 mark. North Carolina was unranked with an 8-5 record and Clemson finished 6-7.

Yet, it’s North Carolina and Clemson that will be sending more talent than just about any other two schools into the NFL Draft.

The Tar Heels 2010 season was ripped apart before it even began, due to NCAA sanctions against more than a half-dozen players for accepting gifts, trips and other illegal inducements from agents. By the time the investigations were completed some 15 players had been suspended, punished or investigated in some fashion.

Quinn, Little and Austin were suspended for the entire season and they essentially saw their final year of college eligibility fly out the door (Quinn could have returned, but decided to enter the NFL Draft.) Various other players served suspensions of varying length.

Ultimately the true test of the talent on the Tar Heels roster could be seen by their ability to go 8-5 without so many players. It was tough times for the three that never got on the field.

“Seeing our guys run on the field down in Atlanta (season opener against LSU), I was about in tears in the stands,” said Quinn. “I made a selfish mistake.”

What hurts most for all those North Carolina players was having a real opportunity to be part of a run for the national championship under head coach Butch Davis. That never came close to happening.

“I think we had a national championship caliber team,” said Austin. “It was unfortunate that we didn’t get a chance to go out there and perform together.”

Had he played in his senior season and performed to the level of what he’d done as a junior, there would be talk about Austin being one of the top four or five players available. The suspension may have cost him a full round in the selections and the millions of dollars that are paid between a pick at the top of the first round and one at the top of the second round.

“I’ve never taken a drink in my life; I’ve never smoked in my life. I’ve done everything to get to this point, but one mistake, taking a couple of trips, and one of them was taken to help me get better as an athlete, has cost me may whole senior season and my image,” Austin said. “I had to sit and listen to my little sister ask me, ‘Marvin, I heard you were drinking and all of this,’ when I’m trying to tell her that you don’t’ have to do all that, you don’t have to go with that crowd.

“So it was an extremely tough situation. But I got through it and I’m a lot stronger for it and I think it’s going to make me a whole lot better professional.”

There were a dozen Tar Heels at the NFL Combine and their figures to be close to that many selected over the three days of the Draft. In the last 10 years, the most players selected in one year from a single program came in 2004 when 14 players out of Ohio State were picked. At various times over the decade Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Miami had 11 picks taken in a single year. All of those teams won or challenged for the national championship.

This year’s crush of Carolina talent is just another part of what has been a building wave of football talent into the NFL. Over the last five drafts Clemson (19), South Carolina (14), North Carolina (10) and N.C. State (15) had 58 players selected.

“It’s just going to get better and better especially if we can keep the Carolina guy at home,” said Quinn. “There’s more going on than just basketball down our way.”

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