When Lake Braddock senior quarterback Caleb Henderson committed to the University of North Carolina on April 11, he knew he was making a decision he wouldn’t regret. He knew the Tar Heels were experiencing a resurgence under second-year coach Larry Fedora, whose high-octane spread offense was sure to accommodate his gunslinger mentality nicely. He also knew he would be heading down to a beautiful college campus that boasted one of the best academic institutions in the country.
What Henderson didn’t know was that he would be making the trip with plenty of company.
Yorktown senior tailback/defensive back MJ Stewart, last season’s Northern Region Offensive Player of the Year, verbally committed to UNC last Monday. One month earlier, T.C. Williams senior defensive lineman Jeremiah Clarke had pledged to the Heels, just a few days before teammate Malik Carney, a senior linebacker, did the same. The four players’ commitments mean that more 2014 recruits will be arriving in Chapel Hill next year from Northern Virginia than any other area in the country.
“Number one, there’s a lot of talent in that area this year,” said Walt Bell, UNC’s recruiting coordinator. “Another great thing about that area is all the kids that we have were great fits here. Good academics, great families, people that can see the whole part of what a great situation we have at this school. It’s definitely a well-rounded institution, and it just so happened that all four kids that we were recruiting all kind of fit. They’re definitely the types of kids we’re trying to bring here.”
Near the head of UNC’s 2014 crop is Henderson, a four-star recruit rated by Rivals.com as the fourth-best pro-style quarterback prospect in the country. The 6-foot-4, 226-pound Lake Braddock star entered this past spring mulling offers from a number of schools, including Virginia, Maryland, Miami, Boston College, Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois and Marshall. Before he could even visit some of those schools, though, Henderson fell for UNC, a program that hadn’t even offered him a scholarship until the day before he gave his commitment.
Henderson was sold on UNC following his second visit to Chapel Hill, when he spent a day tagging alongside Bryn Renner, a former standout at West Springfield High. Renner, now entering his third season as the Heels’ starting signal caller, explained how his dedication and love for UNC had never wavered even as the program endured tumultuous changes in the wake of its academic fraud scandal in 2011.
“Bryn did have a pretty big influence on my decision just because he told me that he’s been through different head coaches and different offensive coordinators, but it’s a school that convinced him to come back instead of transferring,” Henderson said. “I wanted to be a part of that type of school.”
Henderson also wanted other standout players from the Northern Region to be part of the school. After learning that a handful of Northern Virginia locals were on the Heels’ recruiting radar, he did his best to play the part of middle man, sending text messages every week to fellow Patriot District players Clarke and Carney, and sending them nearly every day to Stewart, a friend he’d known since competing on the same All-Star team in eighth grade. Henderson tried to entice them with random tidbits about the school’s reputation, like how it’s rated as one of the country’s top five public universities and how it carries a guy/girl ratio of 40:60.
Henderson’s persuasion was helpful, but ultimately those players chose UNC based on their own considerations and gut feelings.
“He tried to convince me, but he didn’t really contribute to my decision,” said Stewart, rated by Rivals.com as the No. 32 defensive back in the country for his recruiting class. “He gave me positive feedback about North Carolina, but ultimately it was up to me to decide.”
Stewart, a 5-foot-11, 188-pound back who snagged 10 interceptions while also scoring 36 touchdowns and rushing for 1,842 yards in leading Yorktown to the Division 5 region final last season, picked UNC ahead of Michigan State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Though he says he might have been more highly coveted as a running back prospect, Stewart made clear throughout the recruiting process that he wanted to play defensive back at the next level.
Though he affirmed that Bryn’s success at UNC — he holds the highest career pass efficiency rating in ACC history (154.59) — helped the program’s recruiters connect to Northern Virginia, Bell indicated that Bryn’s father, Bill Renner, had a greater influence on the recruiting connections there. A longtime West Springfield coach who carried the reputation of an offensive guru, Bill retired from coaching and moved to North Carolina to follow his son’s college football career. His deep connections to coaches in this area helped make UNC more readily identifiable to potential recruits in Northern Virginia.
Bill said the feel of a laid-back college town as beautiful as Chapel Hill is a major pull factor for any recruit, but he asserted that the program’s upward trajectory and attractive style of play were greater draws for the four kids from Northern Virginia.
“I can see why guys from the Northern Virginia area, where there’s a really hectic pace, kind of like it down here,” said Bill, who didn’t contact any of those four recruits. “Throw in the fact that I think Fedora’s done a really nice job of changing the program to have a really enthusiastic flare about it, I think that attracts those kids.”
While the four recruits gave careful thought to the recent controversy surrounding their future school, none of them considered it a negative factor in their decision, largely because the penalties imposed on UNC by the NCAA won’t affect the 2014 recruits by the time they arrive to the school.
“The most competitive athletes are like, ‘I’m going to go down, and I’m not going to be like that,’” Bill Renner said. “So it’s almost if you do it the right way, which I think Larry and his staff have, if you view it as a positive thing, those next people can look back and say ‘We don’t want that to happen again,’ and you can kind of start out with kids that are at a little bit higher level coming in.”
So far drawing about half its 2014 recruiting class from outside North Carolina, UNC has kept a careful eye on high school players in neighboring states like Virginia over the years.
“Between the Richmond area, NoVa, the Tidewater, there are great players up there,” Bell said. “When we have been our best in the history of our program, they have traditionally recruited that area very well.”