North Carolina an 'underrated' state for high school talent

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

North Carolina has been an annual destination for Notre Dame football recruiting during head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure with the Irish.

Just two months into the job, Kelly’s staff convinced two recruits from North Carolina — linebackers Kendall Moore and Prince Shembo — to maintain their verbal commitments and sign with the program in the 2010 class. The Irish quickly made a routine out of returning to the Tar Heel State with assistant coach Mike Elston leading Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts in the region.

In the next two recruiting cycles, the Irish signed a pair of North Carolina products in each class: defensive end Ben Councell and wide receiver Matthias Farley in 2011 and defensive end Romeo Okwara and offensive lineman Mark Harrell in 2012.

The commitments have been much more infrequent in the recruiting cycles since, but the Irish are regularly offering several players in each class. In the 2014 class alone, 11 recruits in North Carolina reported offers from Notre Dame.

In that recruiting cycle, the Irish lost a commitment from Charlotte Catholic running back Elijah Hood. The four-star recruit decided to sign with North Carolina instead, where he rushed for 2,580 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons. Had Hood decided to stay with the Tar Heels for his four years of eligibility, he would be playing against the Irish on Saturday.

Hood’s early exit led him to being selected in the seventh round of the NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. He was put on the team’s practice squad in September.

Notre Dame’s swing-and-miss with Hood came in the middle of a drought for the Irish in North Carolina. No recruits from the state signed with Notre Dame in three consecutive classes until defensive end Julian Okwara in the 2016 class. A commitment trend has returned with kicker Jonathan Doerer signing with the 2017 class earlier this year and running back Jahmir Smith committing to the 2018 class in July.

Continuing to search for recruits in North Carolina makes a lot of sense. CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said the amount of talent in the state is generally underrated.

“It’s a state talent-wise that’s much better than South Carolina," Lemming said. "South Carolina is usually considered an equal, but it’s not. There are a lot of outstanding players in North Carolina. You see a lot of schools, Notre Dame included, that go and hit the state.”

The ratings numbers indicate a significant talent advantage in North Carolina over South Carolina. From the 2018 class back to the 2010 class, North Carolina has produced 109 recruits rated as a four- or five-star prospects, according to Rivals. During the same time frame, South Carolina has been credited with 56 recruits at a four-star level or higher.

The talent alone makes North Carolina a prime target for Notre Dame, and its lack of a true college football power in the state lends to more recruits leaving its borders.

“The kids go everywhere. They’re not beholden to any of the four schools there,” Lemming said. “North Carolina usually has the better say than North Carolina State, Duke or Wake Forest. But that’s why Notre Dame gets players, and Florida and Alabama and Michigan and Ohio State. The kids are willing to go anywhere.

“Sometimes it’s a little difficult to get kids out of Ohio if Ohio State’s going after them. The same thing with Texas when they’re going well. But the fact is in North Carolina, a good number of guys will leave even if all four schools come after them.”

Six of the state’s top 10 recruits in the 2017 class, according to Rivals, signed with schools outside of North Carolina.

Notre Dame hopes to contribute to that number in 2018 with Smith even though he’s currently ranked as the No. 17 recruit in North Carolina by Rivals. It’s another strong year for running backs in the state with seven ranked in the top 25. Four of them are four-star recruits ranked ahead of Smith, a three-star recruit.

Smith would be the first running back from North Carolina to sign with Notre Dame during Kelly’s tenure. Hood was the only other North Carolina running back to commit to the Irish in that span. But the Irish have consistently pursued running backs in the state. Twelve running backs from North Carolina have reported offers from Notre Dame during Kelly’s tenure.

“It’s a good area for running backs,” Lemming said. “I don’t know if that’s cyclical or not. You see a lot of good ball players there anyway: running backs, a lot of good defensive linemen coming out of the state.”

The only 2019 recruit from North Carolina to report a Notre Dame offer to date is also a running back: Quavaris Crouch. The junior is considered one of the top backs nationally in his class.

“He’s the next guy,” Lemming said. “He’s the big-time guy, so he has a lot of people chasing him already. He has a ton of offers. He may be the No. 1 ranked guy overall for that 2019 class in North Carolina.”

Don't expect Crouch to be the last 2019 recruit to land a Notre Dame offer in North Carolina. History indicates the Irish will find plenty more to pursue.

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Three-star running back Jahmir Smith, a 2018 recruit, gave his verbal commitment to Notre Dame on July 23, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Rivals)

North Carolina has produced several four- and five-star recruits annually since Brian Kelly has been the head coach at Notre Dame. Rivals has labeled 109 recruits with those ratings since 2010.

Class 4 stars 5 stars

2010      9        2

2011      9        2

2012     10       2

2013      9        0

2014     11       1 

2015     11       0

2016     17       1

2017     10       0

2018     13       2