North Carolina football: Holcomb's trip from walk-on to starting LB
CHAPEL HILL -- During his days at New Smyrna Beach High in Florida, there were no college scholarship offers for Cole Holcomb, at least none that are worthy of remembrance years later.
"I had a lot of D1-AA (offers)," Holcomb said, referring to the old name for lower-division FCS schools. "A lot of stuff like that, a lot of those kinds of offers. But nothing big time."
Ask Holcomb what his best FCS offer was and he can't tell you. He doesn't know.
He doesn't know because his high school head coach, Lance Jenkins, didn't talk about those kinds of offers with Holcomb. A school in a lower division was never the plan.
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There was, for a time, an arrangement with Duke. Holcomb planned to walk on there.
"And then that just didn't work out," Holcomb said after a recent practice. "And my coach made a few calls, got me in here."
LBs Cole Holcomb, Hunter Crawford and Cayson Collins pic.twitter.com/AcecGtemfB— Tar Heel Illustrated (@HeelIllustrated) August 12, 2016
Here is UNC. Holcomb stood on the practice field where he'd just completed another long practice as the Tar Heels' starting weak-side linebacker.
It's the position vacated by Shakeel Rashad, who was a senior last season, and it's a position Holcomb was never quite sure he'd be in -- starting or otherwise.
Here's how it all happened: Jenkins, the high school coach, had a relationship with Dan Disch, UNC's former defensive backs coach.
Disch liked Holcomb enough to give him a chance to walk onto the team. And Holcomb did before the 2014 season -- a season that was disastrous for the defense, one that led to the firing of the old defensive coaching staff and the hiring of a new one, led by Gene Chizik.
Throughout most of spring practice in 2015, Holcomb was still a little-known walk-on. Opportunities for significant playing time in practice remained scarce.
"Wasn't getting too many reps," Holcomb said. "And then they just threw me on (the field in) that last scrimmage. I got a bunch of reps."
That led to a second-string position a season ago, backing up Rashad, and now, a starting position entering the season with the highest expectations surrounding the Tar Heels in nearly 20 years.
Walk-on junior LB Cole Holcomb is running with the UNC's first team defense pic.twitter.com/Lhek0i7xft— Ross Martin (@Boss_Martin247) August 9, 2016
All the cliches are true, Holcomb said. Yes, he used the lack of scholarship offers from big schools as motivation. Yes, those slights helped fuel weight room workouts that have helped him go from 185 pounds to 220.
The story isn't that simple, though. That version leaves out all the doubt.
"At the moment I didn't think I could (do this)," he said reflecting on when he graduated high school. "I'm going to be honest. I thought I was just going to almost be a regular student at some point, and just go to college.
"But my (high school) coach told me I could do bigger things."
Eventually his college head coach agreed. Larry Fedora, entering his fifth season as UNC's head coach, recently said that Holcomb "has taken advantage of all of his opportunities."
"He's a very bright kid," Fedora said. "He can really run. He'll hit you."
That's all evident now, entering Holcomb's junior season. It wasn't so clear years ago, when head coaches like Fedora and assistants from other major programs didn't pay Holcomb much attention.
Still, there was a path for Holcomb to play college football. An easier path. Lower-division schools sent him mail, some got in touch with his high school coach.
"He told them I wasn't interested," Holcomb said.
This article was written by Andrew Carter from The News & Observer and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.