As bleak as things have been looking since the NCAA turned up asking about agents and papers written by former tutors over the past two months, there was always the outside chance that the defense that lines up for North Carolina in Saturday night's opener against LSU would be essentially the same defense regularly described throughout the offseason as the most talented D in the nation. Even after nearly the entire starting lineup was relegated to the scout team for potential eligibility issues last week, there were no official suspensions until Wednesday, when defensive tackle Marvin Austin – the name at the center of a laundry list of possible infractions – was officially put on ice on Wednesday.
But whatever hope remained that Austin would somehow assume the burden for the entire team finally evaporated this morning with word from the university that at least a dozen players will be held out of the LSU game in Atlanta, including a few pretty big names:
Chapel Hill - The University of North Carolina has declared six student-athletes on the football team ineligible for Saturday's season-opening game for violating school and/or NCAA rules. The University is also withholding at least six other student-athletes from Saturday's game while the investigation continues.
The six ineligible student-athletes include: defensive tackle Marvin Austin, cornerback Charles Brown, cornerback Kendric Burney, wide receiver Greg Little, defensive end Michael McAdoo and defensive end Robert Quinn.
Six other student-athletes who will be withheld from Saturday's game include: tailback Shaun Draughn, defensive end Linwan Euwell, safety Brian Gupton, tailback Ryan Houston, safety Da'Norris Searcy and safety Jonathan Smith.
The number of games that those 12 student-athletes may miss has not been determined at this time. The investigation continues to include both agent-related and academic issues.
Three other players whose status remains in question won't make the trip to Atlanta, until/unless their cases are resolved in time to get them there in time for kickoff: Linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter and safety Deunta Williams weren't on the team plane as the Tar Heels prepared to leave Friday morning. That puts the official number in the "OUT/DOUBTFUL" category to 15, right on par with the staggering 16 players reportedly in question as of Wednesday evening.
In this case, it's staggering in the quality as much as the quantity: Besides Austin, teammates Brown, Burney and Quinn were all All-ACC picks last year, and were all clearly bound for the draft next spring, where Austin was/is likely to go in the first round and Quinn had (and may still have) a chance to be the first defensive end off the board. If Sturdivant, Carter and Williams aren't cleared in time, that makes three more All-ACC veterans and future draft picks watching from home. Searcy is also a returning starter, and McAdoo had been rotating with the first team on the front four. And
Obviously, the celebrated defense that stood to lift the Heels to one of the best seasons in school history is in tatters. But the offense – already an inconsistent, lo-fi effort even at full strength – may be equally bereft without workhorses Draughns and Houston, the top running backs each of the last two years, and especially without Greg Little, another favorite of pro scouts and the only notable playmaker in the entire attack. Quarterback T.J. Yates has certainly shown no signs in his first three years of a starter of picking up that kind of slack.
The only "positive" is that the Tar Heels generally know who's going to be out 36 hours before kickoff, and have been planning accordingly for more than a week. South Carolina (whose own problems initially stemmed from Marvin Austin's relationship with Gamecock tight end Weslye Saunders) didn't get official word on a dozen of its own eligibility questions until 45 minutes before kickoff in last night's opener against Southern Miss. Ten of those 12 were ultimately cleared in time, including hyped freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, who proceeded to score a pair of touchdowns in his first collegiate game.
There is no indication whatsoever, though, that North Carolina is going to be that lucky on Saturday, where the Vegas line – which opened slightly in UNC's favor last month – now favors LSU by a full touchdown. You may want to act now before it creeps any higher.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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