Recruits become recruiters to help UNC build strong 2017 class

With a little help from defensive end prospect Jake Lawler and several other incoming freshmen, coach Larry Fedora put together a recruiting class he predicted would win multiple championships for the Tar Heels

CHAPEL HILL — Jake Lawler is listed as a 6-foot-3, 220-pound defensive end from South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte. But the four-star prospect is more than just a crown jewel in a 2017 recruiting class North Carolina coach Larry Fedora predicted will be “part of multiple championships while they’re here.” He may also have been Fedora’s best recruiter. Lawler was one of the first top players to commit to the Tar Heels when he made his decision on the day before Signing Day 2016. Once he got on board, he set out to convince other top prospects from around the state to join him in Chapel Hill. His effort was successful, as acknowledged by his soon-to-be college coach on Tuesday. “You’ve got to give Jake a lot of credit for this class,” Fedora said at this year’s Signing Day press conference. “It was important to Jake, once he fell in love with the University of North Carolina and decided he wanted to come, he didn’t sit back and pull the cap out on signing day to make a big deal because it wasn’t about him. It was about his class. “He decided that he wanted to bring in a bunch of great guys around him. So as soon as we identified who those guys were, he actively recruited each and everyone of them.” Among the first players Lawler convinced to become his new teammate was four-star offensive lineman Jonah Melton. A 6-3, 305-pound guard from Eastern Alamance High in Mebane, Melton and Lawler became fast friends. Both graduated high school early and are among the eight new recruits already enrolled at UNC to get a head start on their college careers. Once they joined forces, Fedora said the recruiting effort among the newest Tar Heels quickly took on a “snowball effect.” “Jake jumps in, then Jonah jumps in, then the two of them start the combo drill on everybody,” Fedora said. “I can’t remember who the third one was, but as soon as he jumped in, the three of them started working on guys. “They started looking at it as a challenge: ‘Okay coach, who do we have to go after next. They put a lot of ownership in this class.” The result of their effort — and that of Fedora’s staff — is that UNC succeeded in keeping some of the state’s best high school players close to home this year. Melton is ranked as the No. 1 offensive lineman in North Carolina. Lawler is rated No. 3 overall and No. 10 nationally at his position. J.T. Cauthen, another early enrollee, is the state’s No. 2 wide receiver recruit while defensive tackle Xach Gill is the No. 7 overall prospect. Jordon Riley, a 6-6, 300-pound three-star defensive lineman from Durham Riverside, is the only other homegrown member of the Tar Heels’ 20-man class. “I don’t know that we did a better job,” Fedora said of UNC’s in-state recruiting effort. “There’s a couple of factors. Not having that black cloud (of previous NCAA sanctions) hanging over us in the state is a positive thing. Winning 19 games in the last two years helps us. I think you do those kind of things and these kids coming out of high school now in the state of North Carolina are seeing nothing put positive things about the program. That, along with the job our coaches do makes a difference.” Fedora identified the offensive line and defensive secondary as the Tar Heels’ two areas of greatest need and the recruiting class of 2017 — which has been rated as the fifth-best in the ACC — reflects that. Of the 20 new players, five play on the offensive line and four are listed as defensive backs. While several of those players stand a chance of contributing right away — especially those already on campus and eligible to participate in spring practice — the players most likely to get an early call because of heavy losses at their positions are incoming wide receivers Cauthen and Beau Corrales and running backs Michael Carter and Antwuan Branch. The situation at running back is especially critical, with only one scholarship ballcarrier, sophomore Jordon Brown, on the returning roster. “Yeah, they’re going to have to (play right away),” Fedora said of his two new running back recruits. “They don’t have a choice, do they? They’ve got to come in and play for us next year. They know right now. They’re preparing in their minds. They’re preparing themselves and they know they’re going to have to be ready to play for us in that opening game against Cal.” UNC is also bringing in graduate transfer running back Stanton Truitt from Auburn to help fill the void. With only 20 players signed and scholarships still available, Fedora left ope