When Mack Brown took over once again as North Carolina’s head coach, many observers and Tar Heel fans wondered if he would still have his recruiting touch. Brown proved himself as one of the nation’s best recruiters for over 30 years. However, he was now 69 years old and returning to lead a program that had only won five games over the previous two seasons. There were legitimate questions as to whether he could bring elite play makers to Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels’ recruiting efforts would be the litmus test.
A year-and-a-half into Brown’s return, these questions have been answered. North Carolina, long known as primarily a “basketball school”, has reached another level on the football recruiting trail. After a stellar 2020 class, the Tar Heels’ recruiting class of 2021 ranks fourth nationally. Brown has succeeded in keeping the top North Carolina high school talent at home. Furthermore, the talent that is on the way to Chapel Hill may serve as a legitimate threat to Clemson’s dominance of the ACC.
Tar Heels’ Recruiting Has Improved Quickly
North Carolina has shown over the years that it can be a destination for top high school football talent. The problem, however, has been one of putting together an entire team of top-level players. Brown was able to do it during his first run at North Carolina. By the time he left in 1997, the Tar Heels were among the nation’s best programs. In the years afterward, there were great players-Julius Peppers, for example-who played on bad North Carolina teams. Brown’s predecessor, Dick Crum, brought in players such as Kelvin Bryant and Ethan Horton, but the program ran into the doldrums during the mid-Eighties. There was just not enough talent to surround these stars.
Fast forward to the present, and Brown’s recruiting is addressing the program’s needs-at every position. Brown famously flipped standout quarterback Sam Howell from his commitment to Florida State in early 2019, but he simultaneously brought in impact players on both sides of the ball. The 2020 recruiting class was one of the best in years, ranking seventeenth nationally. Offensive weapons such as receivers Josh Downs and Stephen Gosnell will join defensive stars Desmond Evans and Myles Murphy. Four-star athlete Ja’Qurious Conley will most likely play safety as well as returning punts. Brown even added a graduate transfer kicker, Grayson Atkins, to shore up a kicking problem that cost the Tar Heels at least one game in 2019.
The 2021 recruiting class is loaded. At one point, the Tar Heels’ recruiting class was ranked second nationally, before a slight drop to fourth. To say North Carolina has come a long way is an understatement; Brown is working at warp speed, and the results have spoken for themselves on Signing Day.
North Carolina Is Keeping In-State Players At Home
Brown stated when he was hired that one of his goals was to keep North Carolina’s top in-state talent at home. During the past two decades, that has not been an easy task for the Tar Heels. Clemson, as well as the SEC schools, have poached an incredible amount of talent out of the Tar Heel State. The reason is simple; these players wanted to play at schools that had a chance to compete nationally. In the football-crazy Deep South, the fan bases live and die for their football programs, and that was another selling point that lead North Carolina high school players further South. However, that trend is now leading players to Chapel Hill instead of destinations like Athens and Gainesville. Out of fifteen players in the Tar Heels’ fourth-ranked class of 2021, thirteen are North Carolina natives.
Two prime examples of North Carolina’s recruiting rebirth are Drake Maye and Raneira (RaRa) Dillworth. Both are from North Carolina; Maye is part of what might be the “first family” of Tar Heel Athletics. His father, Mark Maye,was the starting quarterback at North Carolina in 1986 and 1987; his older brother, Luke Maye, was a star basketball player for the Tar Heels. The younger Maye ranks as one of the best pro style quarterbacks in his class, and will most likely be Howell’s heir apparent. Maye first committed to Nick Saban at Alabama before decommitting from the Crimson Tide and signing with North Carolina.
The Tar Heels battled Alabama for Dillworth as well. The four-star outside linebacker made his decision in April, choosing to stay in his native state. The fact that North Carolina is competing with and beating Alabama for recruits is a sign that things have changed drastically under Brown.
Competitiveness, Consistency Are The Keys To Tar Heels’ Recruiting
The Tar Heels finished 2019 on a high note, winning the Military Bowl in resounding style. A bowl win marked the culmination of a remarkable turnaround from the misery of 2017 and 2018. The biggest reward for a winning season came this Spring-on the recruiting trail.
Most of the best high school players in North Carolina want to stay home, for obvious reasons. They want to play in front of their families and friends, and many have been Tar Heel fans since their earliest years. They simply needed to see for themselves that the program’s trajectory was headed upward-a fact that at this point is undeniable.
Brown is working his recruiting magic once again, but perhaps this is his finest hour. Never before has North Carolina gone toe to toe for recruits, against college football’s superpowers. This Spring proved that Brown-and the program-are capable of recruiting at an entirely different level than in the past. Once these recruits arrive, the results on the field have a chance to reach new heights as well.