by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

On the scandal front, the past couple of years in college football have been doozies. Especially since so many big-name schools (Southern Cal, Ohio State, Miami) have been implicated in one charade or another. Other high-profile sorts (such as Auburn and Oregon) have also been on the NCAA's radar. And then there were the travesties at Penn State that almost overshadowed all of the others combined.

Indeed, the dark tales from State College have dominated the news cycles since last November. About the only beneficiary of that overwhelming storyline has been North Carolina; without the crimes at Penn State, Chapel Hill would have been the home to the scandal of the past year.

To refresh memories, in March the Tar Heel football program was hit with heavy NCAA sanctions, including a bowl ban for 2012, scholarship reductions (15 over the next three years), vacated victories, and three years probation. All after academic fraud, impermissible agent interactions, and ineligible players had cost football coach Butch Davis (right) and AD Dick Baddour their jobs.

Riding in to clean up the mess was new AD Bubba Cunningham, who arrived in Chapel Hill via Tulsa last October. Cunningham’s first major move was to find a new football coach after the Heels had waded through 2011 with an interim leader, former defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who had been temporarily promoted to the top spot following Davis’ ouster last July. In December, Cunningham found his new man in Southern Miss HC Larry Fedora after an interesting search in which it seemed as if Auburn o.c. Gus Malzahn was ticketed for Chapel Hill. At least until a video of his wife making a speech at a Christian Leadership Summit went viral on the internet and, according to ACC insiders, spooked Carolina enough to veer away.

Cunningham (left), however, has had a lot more to worry about than Kristi Malzahn in his first year on the Tar Heel job. And Bubba has had even more fires to put out recently, even after the original penalties were announced, when came news of more fraud within the athletic department. The Raleigh News & Observer has recently reported on additional academic no-nos that were apparently committed while the school was in the middle of the NCAA investigation.

Specifically, the News & Observer reports of a hastily-arranged summer school course in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies that drew 19 students--18 of them being football players. Apparently, there was no instruction in the class, just a paper to be turned in at the end of the semester. There were other Afro-American Studies courses with as few as one enrollee, who was often an athlete. There was also no mandatory attendance or instruction for most of those classes.

The school’s internal investigation has labeled 54 such classes in the Afro-American studies to department to be of the “suspect” variety, and the majority of the students enrolled were athletes. In all but nine of the classes, department chair Julius Nyang’oro was listed as the instructor and/or signed the grade rolls.

What really rankles those who care in Chapel Hill is that these transgressions kept happening after the school was originally fingered for other wrongdoing. Instead of the situation clearing up at Carolina, it continues to spiral downward.

The latest accusations, if true, would represent academic fraud at its most blatant. Hardly becoming for a prestigious university that fancies itself as one of the academic powerhouses of the region, with designs on becoming the Stanford of the mid-Atlantic.

But all sorts of baloney has been going on in Chapel Hill the past few years; the NCAA investigation itself extended over 20 months. At the outset, the school moved quickly in 2010 to suspend players supposedly involved with assistant coach John Blake (the former Oklahoma HC) and his de facto role as a runner for high-profile agent Gary Wichard, a onetime C.W. Post QB who unfortunately passed away from pancreatic cancer last year.

Even then, however, UNC let coach Butch Davis work unimpeded as the school moved very slowly in its own internal investigations. Finally, Davis was fired in July 2011, and the school applied some sanctions on itself, before the NCAA decided those penalties weren’t nearly enough.

The Afro-American Studies Department is now under a serious microscope, and the worry in Chapel Hill is that the sacred cow of the school, the Tar Heel basketball program, could also be dragged through the mud. Several Heel hoopsters have also been enrolled in some of those “suspect” classes. The News & Observer reports of clustering by players in certain majors; a heavy does of seven players from the 2005 NCAA title-winning hoop side also happened to be Afro-American Studies majors.

Now, after thinking he might have endured the worst of the storm when the NCAA announced its penalties in March, Cunningham has been forced to review the majors of all of his athletes as well as comb through individual summer-school classes. Most of this was not on his job description when moving from Tulsa.

Recently, the school has also retroactively vacated all of the 2008 statistics from star WR Hakeem Nicks (now a member of the Super Bowl champion NY Giants) when it was discovered he should have been ineligible that season. Butch Davis has also come back under the microscope after the News & Observer and other media outlets filed a public records lawsuit seeking access to records from the ex-coach’s private cell phone number.

We wonder, too, how much new coach Fedora might have been expecting these sorts of ongoing distractions when first taking the Heel job last December.

Fedora, of course, had other options, as he was in the mix at both Arizona State and Texas A&M after leading Southern Miss to a school-best 12-2 mark last season and Conference USA title. A creative offensive mind who was hired at Hattiesburg from Mike Gundy’s staff at Oklahoma State, Fedora is renown for his prolific spread offenses, and seemed a home run hire in Chapel Hill.

We find it hard to imagine Fedora didn’t know what he might be getting into, but he could be excused for underestimating the penalties and subsequent distractions. And now that more allegations are surfacing that could potentially get Carolina into added trouble with the NCAA, it is fair to wonder if Fedora might contemplate the sort of move made by Dennis Franchione a decade ago at Alabama, when added and unexpected NCAA sanctions from penalties before Fran’s arrival in Tuscaloosa prompted him to walk to Texas A&M after just two seasons as the Tide’s coach.

All of this seems particularly non-sensical when it comes to a school with so much to offer as UNC. Rich in tradition, highly-respected academically, and located in the haven of Chapel Hill (one of our favorite college towns) within the very cosmopolitan but casually-paced Raleigh-Durham metro area, Carolina offers a college experience that’s hard to beat. And with its stunning campus located within the economic powerhouse that is the Research Triangle, few schools would figure to be able to match what the Tar Heels can offer.

Indeed, many respected observers have long wondered why Carolina has not taken flight on the football side, with so many resources on hand and nearby. Like at nearby Duke, basketball has been a convenient excuse for football’s shortcomings, but even in the years when the Heels were struggling on the hardwood with Matt Doherty as the coach, the pigskin version of UNC was mostly floundering.

The Heels have plenty of football history and have appeared close to gridiron breakthroughs in the past. Trivia buffs might find it interesting that Carolina is credited as being the first team to use the forward pass, doing so in an 1895 game vs. Georgia, when George Stephens caught an aerial out of punt formation and went 70 yards to tally the only score of a 6-0 Heels win.

Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice was a great back just after World War II, earning All-American honors and eventual induction into the College FB Hall of Fame; his statue stands outside on-campus Kenan Stadium. Justice led teams to the Sugar and Cotton Bowls, but it would be 14 years before the Heels next participated in the postseason in 1963, featuring punishing future San Francisco 49ers FB Ken Willard and a win over Air Force in the Gator Bowl, 35-0.

The Heels would resurface again in the early ‘70s behind HC Bill Dooley, whose brother Vince was winning at Georgia in those years and happened to face Bill in the 1971 Gator Bowl, won by the Bulldogs (avenging that 1895 defeat!) on a late Jimmy Poulos TD run, 7-3. Indeed, it was Bill Dooley who was credited with putting the ACC back on the gridiron map with a string of power teams between 1970-72 with sides featuring a succession of top-flight RBs (including future Baltimore Colt Don McCauley, Lewis Jolley, and Ike Oglesby); the best of those was the ‘72 team that finished 11-1, won the ACC, ranked 12th in the final polls, and beat Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl.

Carolina made noise again in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s under HC Dick Crum, fashioning another 11-1 side in 1980 featuring LB Lawrence Taylor. Curiously, that ‘80 team is also the Heels’ last ACC champion. Crum’s 1981 squad rose as high as third-ranked in the polls, and this era of Tar Heels became renown for their assembly line of top-flight RBs including “Famous” Amos Lawrence, Kelvin Bryant, and Ethan Horton. Crum’s ultra-conservative nature eventually signaled a downturn in the program in the late ‘80s before Mack Brown arrived from Tulane in 1988. Though 1-10 in each of this first two seasons, Brown quickly thereafter got the Heels up to speed, all of the way to 11-1 and a number six ranking in the final polls in 1997 before taking the job at Texas.

Since Brown departed, the Heels have been very so-so, however, suffering through bad coaching hires Carl Torbush (promoted from d.c. after Brown left) and John Bunting before making a mild recovery under Davis. Despite last year’s minor bowl bid (Independence) under interim HC Withers, new AD Cunningham correctly deduced that it was time to clean house and bring in a new coach from the outside.

Enter Fedora.

Despite the bowl ban for this season, and other penalties imposed since his hiring, Fedora hardly inherits a carcass of a program from Withers (since then landing nicely on his feet as Urban Meyer’s new co-d.c. at Ohio State), who cobbled together a 7-6 mark last fall and a bid to the Independence Bowl, where high-powered Missouri proved too much in a 41-24 Tiger cruise. Still, Fedora looks to have some of the necessary pieces to implement the uptempo spread offenses that were his trademark at Ok State and Southern Miss within a strike force that returns seven starters.

Junior QB Bryn Renner (left), who completed 68% of his passes in his first go as a starter last fall, appeared to pick up the nuances of the spread and its no-huddle features just fine in March, reflected when completing 23 of 28 passes in the spring game. Fedora says the spread remains a work in progress, but was encouraged by Renner’s apparent mastery of the system in quick order. ACC sources also claim that RS frosh QB Marquise Williams, the gem of last year’s recruiting class, has all of the tools to flourish in the spread, although he might have to wait until 2014 for his chance.

Tempo is always important for Fedora; he likes his offense to run at least 80-85 plays per game in rapid-fire sequence, which will require some adjusting by Renner and the Heel offense that averaged barely 60 plays per game a year ago.

It can be argued that soph RB Giovani Bernard (right) is the most important cog in the UNC offense. Bernard was a transformational figure last fall in Chapel Hill, recovering from knee rehab the previous year to gain 1253 YR and become the first Heel since Jonathan Linton in 1997 to rush for better than 1000 yards. Fedora can also mix it up and go with a big power back, 230-lb. former QB A.J. Blue, and 180-lb. RS frosh jackrabbit Romar Morris (who ran a 10.54 100 meters in high school) can provide the ultimate change-of-pace, as suggested by his breakout performance in spring.

Although last year’s top receiver Dwight Jones (85 catches) has departed and will be spending summer in the Houston Texans camp, five of next top pass catchers from 2011 return, led by rangy 6'3, 190-lb. sr. Erik Highsmith (left; 51 catches last year). Highsmith, however, is the only wideout who caught more than 14 passes a year ago (RB Bernard added 45); what Fedora and o.c. Blake Anderson are worried about is finding enough reliable targets and the right combinations of receivers to complement Highsmith and provide ample targets for Renner. Most of the other receiving options, like Highsmith, provide big targets, but they have yet prove reliable. In the past, 6'2 sr. Jheranie Boyd has flashed big-play potential (12 of his 40 career receptions have gone for TDs)...now he needs to add the consistency part to his performance.

Meanwhile, Fedora likes the look of his offensive line, with four starters returning. The left side looks particularly imposing, with all-ACC components at tackle (6'7, 310-lb. James Hurst) and guard (6'3, 310-lb. Jonathan Cooper).

The healthy return of sr. PK Casey Barth, who sat out last season with an injured thigh and groin, should add consistency to the kicking game; Barth has nailed better than 80% of his FG tires (50 of 62) in his Chapel Hill career. Along with soph P Tommy Hibbard, who has an NFL leg, the Heels look good on special teams, even better when considering that soph T.J. Thorpe led the ACC in kick returns as a frosh, taking one of those back 100 yards for a TD vs. Clemson.

On the other side of the ball, the Heels will also be altering their defensive looks from a year ago when they mostly aligned in 4-3 schemes. New d.c. Dan Disch, however, spent spring installing a new 4-2-5 deployment which features a hybrid “Ram” (part DB, part LB) who would have been on the field mostly in nickel looks in the past but will now stay on the field more often and move around as needed; look for 190-lb. sr. Gene Robinson (right), a big-hitter who bounced around between safety and the nickel last fall, to handle the position. Disch’s “D” will also feature a “Bandit” (part DE/part LB); expect sr. Dion Gray, who has also bounced around between positions and starring on special teams earlier in his career, to prove a good fit, quick and versatile enough to become a factor off the edge.

The Heels were respectable on “D” last season (ranking 49th overall) and even better vs. the run, allowing only 127 ypg and finishing 27th in the nation in that category, partly because Butch Davis did succeed in recruiting plenty of big, fast defensive linemen. Unfortunately for Fedora and Disch, two of the biggest and fastest from a year ago, DE Quinton Coples (a first-round draft pick of the NY Jets) and DT Tydreke Powell (spending summer in the Minnesota Vikings camp), have both departed.

Only one starter returns up front, but 320-lb. former juco DT Sylvester Williams (left, in the Independence Bowl vs. Missouri) looks as if he will follow Coples and Powell to the NFL after this season following his smashing Heels debut (including 54 tackles and seven stops for loss) a year ago. Junior DE Kareem Morris has flashed big-time pass rush potential in the past and could blossom now that he has moved into a starting role.

The latest in the assembly line of Tar Heel star LBs, sr. Kevin Reddick (right), led the team in tackles last season with 71 despite being hampered by nagging injuries. Soph Travis Hughes, one of the gems of last year’s recruiting haul who played in all 13 games as a frosh, has unlimited upside and could make for quite a pairing with Reddick, likely on his personal NFL salary drive this fall.

The pass defense was the only borderline wink link in the platoon last fall, but the extra DB in the new alignment could result in upgrades (especially if Geno Robinson can handle the complexities of the “Ram” role). Soph CB Tim Scott endured a rough baptism on the corner as a frosh but unlike a year ago at least enters this fall as battle-tested, while jr. SS Tre Boston (left) is considered an all-ACC candidate. The projected DBs are not that big (all under 200 lbs.) but have decent height, suggesting it might be difficult to throw over the top on this bunch.

The schedule looks manageable, especially with lower-division Elon and Idaho each visiting Chapel Hill in non-ACC action. Without a bowl carrot, expect Fedora to highlight the October 27 battle vs. nearby NC State at Kenan Stadium as the game of the year; the Heels have lost five straight to the Wolfpack. As for Fedora’s past spread marks at USM, note that his Golden Eagles usually provided decent value as an underdog (9-5 in role).

Summary...Without the incentive of a bowl, it is difficult to tell how a team might react; once a game or two are lost, such situations have been known to unravel. Then again, there’s the ultimate example of Terry Bowden’s 1993 Auburn probation-saddled side that kept winning and winning and winning and never stopped en route to an 11-0 mark...even with nowhere to go in bowl season. In UNC's case, the presence of bowl sanctions plus new systems both offensively and defensively is a combination that would usually suggest immediate trouble on the horizon. But there are some interesting skill position weapons such as QB Bryn Renner & RB Gio Bernard in place for Fedora’s spread offense, and plenty of athletes are on the defensive side. We don't expect an Auburn '93-like surprise, but also hardly expect the Heels to disappear this fall whatever the surrounding circumstances (which could have a few new and troubling developments on the horizon) might be.


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