Published November 20, 2014
The pair at the center of an NCAA investigation into whether they received improper benefits from agents didn't talk with reporters after the afternoon practice. The rest of the players and coach Butch Davis have chosen to focus on anything other than the uncertainty following Austin, a senior defensive tackle projected as a high NFL draft pick, and Little, a senior and the team's top receiving threat.
"It's good to get back to doing football," Davis said. "I think our players are excited about it. Anytime you go on the practice field for two hours, as a coach, you're always talking about block out distractions, block out the weather, block out the noise, block out the other team's fans. This was a good way to start camp."
Austin and Little appeared to be working with the second team during a 45-minute part of practice that was open to reporters, but Davis said he wasn't making any practice plans based on their status just yet.
"We rotate a lot of guys throughout in a lot of different situations," Davis said. "At some point in time during the course of training camp, we'll have to make a decision based on what we find out and what direction we need to go. But right now, we're just practicing football."
Davis has talked only in generalities about the inquiry, which began when the NCAA notified the school in late June. Investigators visited the campus July 12 and 13 to interview an unknown number of players, then returned again this week. The probe has been part of a series of similar investigations at defending national champion Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
During last weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff preseason event, Davis refused to answer whether he had a policy of holding out players in the midst of an NCAA investigation, calling it "speculative." When asked Friday about the NCAA's return to campus, Davis again refused to talk about specifics.
"We'll talk about football," he said. "We're not talking about the NCAA review."
His players are following a similar path. Quarterback T.J. Yates said the start of training camp meant the team could just "block everything else and concentrate on football," while cornerback Kendric Burney said the NCAA investigation has been "no distraction at all."
"We had a great first day of practice," Burney said. "Our focus right now is on practice and that's exactly what we're doing."
Davis is preparing for his fourth season in Chapel Hill, where he has guided the program to consecutive eight-win seasons and their first back-to-back bowl seasons since the late 1990s when Mack Brown left for Texas.
The Tar Heels are expected to contend for the ACC's Coastal Division title behind a defense that returns nine starters from a unit that ranked among the nation's best last year. Austin — a 6-foot-3, 310-pound tackle — opted to return to school for his final season instead of heading to the NFL, while Little emerged as the team's go-to receiver late last year.
Losing either — let alone, both — would be a blow for the Tar Heels as they prepare for their opener against LSU in Atlanta on Sept. 4.
As for whether the team has rallied around each other in response to the probe, Davis is waiting to see.
"Today's our first practice," he said. "Time will tell."