CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn lined up side-by-side on North Carolina's practice field for defensive line drills while Greg Little hauled in passes.
It was harsh reminder of what could have been that brought some closure to a tough year.
The three former Tar Heel standouts participated in the school's workouts for pro scouts Thursday after missing last season due to the NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct. The probes forced North Carolina to play without several of its most talented players.
"It was like the national championship for me," Austin said. "I wasn't able to play with the guys on the field this year. I still believe we could have had one of the better teams in the country. I just looked at it as a chance to get back out there and compete with my boys and get to cheer each other on."
Austin, Little and Quinn were supposed to lead the Tar Heels' resurgence this season under coach Butch Davis. But the school kicked Austin off the team while the NCAA declared Little and Quinn "permanently ineligible" for receiving improper benefits in October. It ended the college careers of a pair of possible first-round NFL draft picks on the defensive line as well as the team's top returning receiver.
Athletic director Dick Baddour said the players had shown remorse for breaking NCAA rules and requested to participate in the workouts. Baddour said he conferred with Davis and chancellor Holden Thorp before they decided to allow it.
"They've said it emphatically over the last couple of months, they've said it privately in closed-door sessions, just how disappointed they were and how they felt they had let the team and university down," Davis said. "The idea to allow them the opportunity kind of puts a little bit of closure to it and lets us move forward into the next season. I think it was the appropriate and right thing to do."
Their presence certainly created a buzz.
Team spokesman Kevin Best said 31 of 32 NFL teams had representatives attend the workouts. Among the spectators were: Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, and Carolina coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney — whose Panthers own the No. 1 overall pick.
"They definitely brought in a lot of guys: the GMs, the head coaches," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "Definitely it made the pool bigger for everybody else."
The NCAA said Quinn, a junior defensive end, accepted two black diamond watches, a pair of matching earrings and travel accommodations to Miami for benefits worth $5,642. Little, a senior, accepted diamond earrings, as well as travel accommodations for the Bahamas, Washington, D.C., and a pair of trips to Miami for benefits worth $4,952. The NCAA said both players also lied to investigators during interviews.
Meanwhile, the school dismissed Austin, a star defensive tackle, after the NCAA provided preliminary information the senior had received double the benefits furnished to Quinn and Little.
All three players said the NCAA probe has been a frequent topic in meetings with NFL teams.
"I know I'm going to make mistakes," Little said. "I'm going to drop balls, I'm going to do things that aren't right and are wrong. I did some things that were very wrong and were very selfish, so to speak. I know that I've got to move on from that and show everybody who I am as a person."
By the end of the season, eight players had sat out the entire year, though one was cleared to return before deciding to redshirt. Fourteen players missed at least one game. Yet the Tar Heels went 8-5 for the third straight season and lost three games by six or fewer points, including the 30-24 opener to LSU.
Quinn, who attended that game with Austin in Atlanta, said he was nearly in tears watching from the stands.
"I knew if we were there, I'm pretty sure it would've been a different outcome," Quinn said. "But like I said, it's in the past. There's nothing we can do but keep moving."
Austin was his typically gregarious self while talking with reporters after going through drills with Quinn under the direction of Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. He even said North Carolina could have contended for a national championship had everyone been on the field.
But the Tar Heels will never know — and for Little, that's hard to take.
"We were in line to do something unheard of in Chapel Hill for the football team," he said. "You just don't talk about football in Chapel Hill and a national championship. That doesn't go in the same sentence to some people. ... It was just going to be a really, really, really special time."