North Carolina knew it would be in for a test in its season opener against a fellow ranked team. The fallout from an ongoing NCAA investigation has made the Tar Heels’ first game even tougher.
Twelve players from No. 18 North Carolina have been ruled out of Saturday night’s game against No. 21 LSU at the Georgia Dome.
The school said Friday that defensive ends Robert Quinn and Michael McAdoo, cornerbacks Kendric Burney and Charles Brown, receiver Greg Little and suspended defensive tackle Marvin Austin were declared ineligible for the opener for “violating school and/or NCAA rules.” It’s not immediately known how many games they will miss.
Top running backs Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston, safeties Brian Gupton, Da’Norris Searcy and Jonathan Smith along with defensive end Linwan Euwell are also being held out during the probe.
Additionally, a school spokesman said three defensive starters aren’t traveling with the team to Atlanta. Linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, and safety Deunta Williams weren’t on the team plane as the Tar Heels prepared to leave.
The university had said there were three unidentified players who wouldn’t travel as the school worked with the NCAA to determine their status for the game. The spokesman wouldn’t name Sturdivant, Carter and Williams as those players.
“We are disappointed the players’ choices have denied them the opportunity to compete alongside their teammates and represent the University of North Carolina,” coach Butch Davis said in a statement. “Our coaches and players have a tremendous challenge this weekend, and despite these circumstances, our team will be excited to face LSU.”
The NCAA notified North Carolina in June that Austin and senior wide receiver Greg Little, who led the Tar Heels with 62 receptions, 724 yards and five TDs last year, were being investigated for receiving improper benefits from agents. That probe has since expanded into potential academic misconduct involving a tutor.
North Carolina went 8-5 in 2009 and was expected to contend for the ACC championship this year. Austin, Little and Burney were among six players who bypassed the NFL draft to return for their senior seasons, while Quinn, a junior, is widely thought to be a high first-round pick.
Minus his top target, senior quarterback T.J. Yates may have a hard time trying to improve upon last year, when he threw for 2,136 yards with 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Little’s absence could result in Yates looking more for sophomore wide receivers Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd and senior tight end Zack Pianalto. That trio combined for 82 catches, 973 yards and seven scores in 2009.
Draughn and Houston totaled 1,329 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. The Tar Heels’ top option out of the backfield now could be senior Johnny White, who had only 19 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown last season.
LSU had no immediate comment on the suspensions.
After two years that haven’t lived up to their standards, the Tigers will also be looking for more from their signal-caller in Jordan Jefferson.
The junior begins his second full season as the clear-cut starter. He helped lead the Tigers to a 9-4 record last season following a 19-17 loss to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl.
Jefferson threw for 2,166 yards with 17 TDs and seven interceptions, while getting sacked 32 times and leading an offense ranked 112th in the FBS with 304.5 yards per game.
“He’s starting to realize that it’s more than a position, that it’s not just: Call the play and throw the ball,” said coach Les Miles, who is 17-9 since leading the Tigers to the 2007 national title. “It’s a responsibility to function the offense and to give us an opportunity at victory, and to see the defense, and to understand the call.”
Jefferson also has a number of talented playmakers lining up on the outside. Terrence Toliver is back after catching 53 passes for 735 yards, as are sophomores Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard, a converted quarterback who Miles could use under center in certain formations.
LSU is 7-1 at the Georgia Dome and 5-1 versus North Carolina. The Tigers won the last matchup 30-3 at home Oct. 25, 1986.