BBD Staff Writer: Joe Marino
North Carolina (6-6) started the season 1-5 before winning five of its last six games to become bowl-eligible and face Cincinnati (9-3) in Saturday’s Belk Bowl (3:20 p.m, ESPN). Cincinnati enters the game on a hot streak of its own, having won six of their last seven games.
North Carolina has made a habit of producing NFL prospects without having the onfield success to accompany their talent. That said, the headline player in this matchup, tight end Eric Ebron, has caught 55 passes for 895 yards and three touchdowns this season, proving himself as a player any NFL quarterback should want to have in their arsenal of weapons.
Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina, Jr. (6’4’’, 245 lbs)
Ebron has already declared for the 2014 NFL Draft and has a chance to be the top tight end selected in May’s draft. Ebron is an explosive prospect who has averaged 16.4 yards per reception for his career.
With his speed and explosiveness, Ebron brings a dimension to an offense that is difficult to defend. He has the makings of a game-changing tight end at the next level.
Ebron runs good routes and gets clean releases off the line. He knows how to find soft spots in defenses and separate down the field. He can get open with speed and quickness but can also set up his breaks with hesitation and stutter moves to spring him away from defenders. He works all areas of the field well but is especially effective in the seams and middle of the field.
Ebron is competitive at the catch point and excels at high-pointing the ball and plucking it out of the air. He is a nightmare for defensive backs in one-on-one situations. He can make plays when covered and has a huge catch radius.
Ebron has good after-the-catch and North Carolina frequently utilizes him in short routes and screens. He has tremendous upfield burst after the catch.
As a blocker, Ebron offers very little. He is a willing blocker but struggles to stay engaged with opponents and doesn’t block well in space. Ebron also has occasional frustrating drops.
Ebron would project perfectly as an explosive target for Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel and could be a possible first-round selection for the Bills. He is a potential top-20 draft selection who will be fun to watch in his final college football game.
Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina, Sr. (6’6’’, 265 lbs)
Martin has been a steady contributor for the Tar Heel defense and a starter since his sophomore season (he also earned three starts as a true freshman). In his senior season, Martin has established new career highs with 78 tackles, 11 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.
Martin is a balanced contributor as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher.
As a run defender, Martin is physical at the point of attack and displays good instincts. Martin is solid in gap assignments and is rarely out of position. When teams run right at him, Martin can penetrate, shed and make big plays.
As a pass-rusher, Martin shows the ability to get by his man but does not have the ideal bend or closing burst to consistently get to the quarterback. That said, he utilizes his length to create separation and has power counter moves to create pressure. The tools are in place for Martin to become an even better pass-rusher, and he has shown tremendous improvements in his senior year, so his best football may be ahead of him in this area.
Martin looks like he could be a solid rotational defensive lineman in the NFL, and could be a Day 2 draft selection.
James Hurst, OT, North Carolina, Sr. (6’7’’, 305 lbs)
Hurst has been a starter for the Tar Heels since the second week of his freshman season and he has played very well. A first-team All-ACC selection in each of the last two seasons, he is playing his best football heading into the end of his collegiate career.
Hurst is a well-balanced and efficient blocker with an excellent frame and length. He has good footwork and agility, while he uses his length to ride pass-rushers past opposing quarterbacks. He naturally does a good job staying in front of his opponent. He displays good leg drive and finishing ability as a run blocker, and has proven he can sustain blocks solidly.
For Hurst to reach his full potential, he needs to win hand placement battles more consistently. Opposing rushers too frequently get inside hand placement against Hurst, giving them the ability to control Hurst and bull-rush. Hurst is also susceptible to getting beat by inside rush moves.
Hurst has held his own against good competition since his freshman year. Although he is the outside the top tier of offensive tackles, he has a great skill set and starter upside.
Tre Boston, S, North Carolina, Sr. (6’1’’, 205 lbs)
Boston began his Tar Heels career as a corner and switched to safety before his junior season. The results have been good and Boston has emerged as a potential NFL safety. With 85 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and eight passes defended, his senior season has been his best. He has 12 interceptions for his career.
Boston does a solid job coming up from the safety position and defending the run. He reacts well to what he sees and is a good tackler. He is aggressive and physical in pursuit of the ball, and should be able to excel in punt and kickoff coverage if used there.
Boston has flashed coverage and ball skills but is not nearly the pass defender that he is a run defender. Boston can break on balls in front of him but does not have great burst when tracking the ball down the field. He does not turn and run well with receivers and has a tendency to lose receivers in zone coverage Boston is more of an in-the-box safety than a center-fielder.
Boston is a mid-round prospect at this point. He could improve his draft stock with solid showings in the Belk Bowl and East-West Shrine Game and by proving his athletic ability at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Greg Blair, LB, Cincinnati, Sr. (6’2’’, 252 lbs)
Since transferring in from junior college, Blair has been a steady two-year starter for Cincinnati. He has accumulated 216 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups and three forced fumbles over two seasons.
Blair plays sound assignment football with disciplined reads, and he flows well to the football. He is able to shift through traffic and get to the ball while avoiding blockers. His playmaking range has improved over the past two seasons, and he has shown the ability to get to the edge and make plays outside the box.
Blair has flashed the ability to match up with tight ends in coverage, and he competes well at the catch point. He can blitz aggressively but has not been used often in that capacity.
Not a great athlete, Blair projects best to playing inside in a 3-4 defense.
For a team looking to add quality depth at linebacker in the middle to late rounds of the draft, Blair could be a good selection with starting upside.