MOBILE, Ala. — The pipeline from Chapel Hill to the NFL is alive and well, and evident at this year's Senior Bowl in the form of four Tar Heels looking to continue a new tradition.
The University of North Carolina has always been known for its basketball prowess, funneling out NBA stars every year. But when Butch Davis took over the football program in 2006, things started to pick up on the gridiron, culminating in a school-record nine Tar Heels taken in last April's draft. That group included QB T.J. Yates, who quarterbacked the Texans in the franchise's first playoff game. DL Robert Quinn had a solid rookie season in St. Louis, and WR Greg Little was second among rookies with 61 receptions.
Turmoil struck the program, though, in the summer of 2010. Marvin Austin, Quinn and Little — all 2011 draft picks — were kicked off the team for dealings with agents and other rules violations. The team lost its stars, and the players who remained had to deal with the adversity, which continued last July when Davis was fired and they had to undergo a coaching change.
The four Tar Heels in Mobile had to go through a lot in their final two seasons at UNC but believe the experience should help them at the next level.
"It helped me grow. It helped me mature in a way that I probably wouldn't have if I didn't go through those things," said DE Quinton Coples, the highest-rated of this year's Tar Heels class. He is expected to be a first-round pick. "I wasn't happy for the things that happened, but they educated me on a lot of things."
Coples saw the impact on the field. When Austin was suspended, Coples moved inside and played defensive tackle as a junior, notching 10 sacks. As a defensive end in his senior year, he had 7½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Coples has been one of the more impressive players at the Senior Bowl.
The next Tar Heel to come off the board in April after Coples will likely be the speedy Zach Brown, a linebacker who can run faster than some receivers.
"This happened, you've got to move on," Brown said about playing through the drama. "You can't let that stop you from playing this game. If we don't have our starters, you still need to play to win."
Coples and Brown are joined in Mobile by college teammates WR Dwight Jones and DT Tydreke Powell. Under Davis, the players got coaching from someone who had plenty of NFL experience, and it showed.
"Butch did an unbelievable job recruiting. They have a lot of talent," said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who is coaching the Tar Heel alums on the South team at the Senior Bowl.
"Having Coach Davis and having our position coaches that coached in the pros, they taught us technique and fundamentals. They really stressed fundamentals," Brown said.
Jones pointed to the coaching and the offensive system as reasons for the NFL readiness of the Tar Heels. "We had a pro-style offense. We had receivers like Hakeem Nicks. The coaches taught us a lot of technique and the pro-style offense."
The players all showed a wealth of respect for Davis, whose career in Chapel Hill ended in controversy, but his ability to get talented players to a basketball school is still paying dividends.
"One of his main things was getting an education. He was a great football coach and a father figure," said Jones.
Coples added that Davis taught him to be a pro "on and off the field."
The success on the gridiron didn't necessarily correspond with the pro talent the program produced — UNC never won more than eight games under Davis — but the players are living up to the hype on the NFL stage. April's draft, though, will provide another opportunity to see Davis' influence when Coples, Brown and Jones join their fellow Tar Heel alums in the NFL.
Follow Kevin Fishbain on Twitter