Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Even with the murky information presented by evasive North Carolina officials Thursday night, the potential fallout from the university's pending inquiry into academic misconduct by a former football tutor seemed ominous enough. At least nine and possibly as many as twelve players with eligibility at risk in the scandal – some of whom may also be implicated in the university's ongoing investigation into activity between players and agents, which intitially led investigators to the academic fraud case – were reportedly relegated to the scout team on Wednesday. That group allegedly included some pretty big names.

But "ominous" doesn't begin to describe this morning's report by WRAL radio in Raleigh, which expanded the list of disappeared starters at Thursday's practice to include all the big names:

Among [players working with the scout team defense] were DE Robert Quinn, DL Quinton Alton, LB Quan Sturdivant, LB Bruce Carter, CB Kendric Burney, CB Charles Brown, DT Jared McAdoo, DB Curtis Campbell, LB Darius Lipford and S Da'Norris Searcy. One additional player ran with the scout team but could not be identified to make up the 11 players on that defensive team.

Quinn, Sturdivant, Carter, Burney, Brown, McAdoo and Searcy have all previously been running with the first team and were projected starters. Alton, Campbell and Lipford are all freshmen who normally make up the third team.Typically, a scout team or third string is made up of players not expected to start in the upcoming game.

Note that the lineup doesn't include senior defensive tackle Marvin Austin, the walking embodiment of an "eligibility risk" after finding himself at the center of ongoing inquiries into a laundry list of alleged infractions this summer, who continues to practice with the second team while his status is under review. Also missing is senior safety Deunta Williams, who's being held out for a minor injury.

Altogether, then, the scandal/demotion/injury hit list makes up nine members of the opening-night defense, which was being touted as the cornerstone of the Tar Heels' big breakthrough this fall. Austin, Burney, Carter, Sturdivant and Williams all followed up All-ACC campaigns last winter by collectively passing on an early exit to the NFL, giving Carolina nine returning starters from a unit that led the ACC in '09 and finished sixth nationally in yards allowed. In stat-crunching preseason guru Phil Steele's lists of the best players in the nation coming into 2010, Tar Heel defenders ranked as the No. 1 defensive end (Quinn), the No. 1 defensive tackle (Austin), the No. 1 inside linebacker (Sturdivant), the No. 1 outside linebacker (Carter), the No. 2 free safety (Williams) and the No. 4 and No. 13 cornerbacks (Burney and Brown). In other words, as of Thursday, the UNC scout team is now the most talented amateur defense in America.

The silver lining for Carolina fans: The demotions are only a precaution to prepare the new starters in case the status of the actual first-teamers remains in limbo past the Sept. 4 opener against LSU. Officially, no one has been declared ineligible or suspended (even the oft-implicated Austin), and athletic director Dick Baddour said Thursday night the school planned to lobby for official NCAA clearance on as many players as possible right up until kickoff if necessary. It's possible some, most or possibly all of the demoted starters will be cleared in time to take the field in Atlanta, or for the majority of the season if the process takes longer. It's also possible some, most or all of them could be ruled out for the entire year. They've got one week to get it sorted out before the whistle blows for real.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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