Lynchburg (Va.) Liberty Christian Academy isn’t on the beaten path for college recruiters so offensive tackle Zach Rice had to go find the spotlight. He did some of the all-star events for middle schoolers but any momentum they helped him build on the recruiting scene quickly fell off. With the pandemic slowing his recruitment even more, Rice and his mother, Mary, were looking for ways to jumpstart his recruitment. In June of 2020, they made the almost four hour drive from Lynchburg to the Virginia Beach Sportsplex to show off his skillset and his stock took off like a rocket.

The 6-foot-6, 305-pound offensive tackle saw teams from around the country start offering him. Rice, a five-star in the Rivals250, ended up taking visits to schools like Florida, Penn State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and some others but the teams that rose to the top of his recruitment were Alabama, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Virginia. He took official visits to each of his top five schools except for North Carolina. Rice, however, did take multiple unofficial visits to Chapel Hill. The only other school to get him on campus multiple times was Virginia.

In the end, it was the Tar Heels that came away with Rice’s commitment, their highest ranked commitment since Donte Moss signed with North Carolina in the 2009 class.

“First of all, they have a Hall of Fame coach in Mack Brown,” Rice said. “I would say the Virginia setting had a lot on me. I’m talking about how there are so many guys from Virginia there. Tony (Grimes), (his dad, Deon) Glover, all the Virginia connections I have there and how they embrace Virginia over there, is a pride thing. A lot of the other schools, there weren’t many Virginia guys on the roster and I feel like we’re going to take over in that category.

“Dre Bly was a big factor,” he said. “I grew up with (five-star defensive tackle) Travis Shaw. Bryson Jennings, his uncle went to my school so I’m really cool with the Jennings family. His uncle also went to school with my uncle so I know their family and we’re pretty cool.

“I wanted to play with George (Pettaway) and Omarion (Hampton),” said Rice. “That is going to be exciting. Drake Maye, I am so excited to play with him and maybe Sam (Howell) stays for another year.

“I feel comfortable there,” he said. “I feel like it’s a place I can be myself. I feel like it’s a place I can succeed.

“A lot of the people there already think the same,” Rice said. “All they’re missing right now is pretty much a good offensive line. Their offensive line has been struggling but I saw their progression last year.”

“I think Zach really feels comfortable there around the kids, around the environment, and around the coaches,” said Rice’s mother, Mary. “I think that coach Mack Brown is outstanding. His resume speaks for itself. Him and his wife, you couldn’t meet more genuine, fun, and caring people. Coach Brown has verbalized and been very intense about how he’s very dedicated to Zach’s development, his career, and making sure everything goes well for him, not just football. He’s committed to Zach as a young man, not just a football player.

“They’ve made us feel very welcome there,” she said. “I think Zach has developed a great relationship with coach Dre Bly. He’s really encouraged by what (offensive line coach) Stacy Searels is doing and how he is very excited about Zach’s development. When Zach worked out for them they were really excited. They see him seeing the field very early. There aren’t guarantees but I think Zach would have a great opportunity to play as a freshman, potentially. He has to earn all that and we want to earn that. If he is able to have that honor, we want it to be something he’s worked hard for.

“Coach Searels has put guys in the league,” she said. “We know coach Mack Brown has put guys in the league. They understand that process and they’re committed to developing Zach to get there.”

On the impact of their various connections to UNC- “I do think it was a big factor but Zach would know better than I do,” she said. “I think that he sees what coach Dre Bly is building and he sees what he’s doing with ‘Virginia to North Carolina’ and getting this level of recruits there. I do think it’s important and he sees that as something that played into his decision, seeing the high level recruits that are coming to North Carolina and seeing where it’s trending. You couple that in with knowing Mack Brown’s history and you see the potential rising. I do think all of that played in strongly.

“He’s built a relationship with these Virginia guys,” she said. “Zach will tell you he’s not going to pick a school based upon one kid. That would sort of be ridiculous. But seeing the way recruiting is trending does have an impact. You see what the future could look like, where it can go, and where the program is going and it’s exciting.

“Of course, we’re excited about the Virginia guys,” she said. “He’s very into where he’s from, his state, his hometown, and his heritage.”

Even though Rice doesn’t get much in-game experience against Power Five prospects, he has displayed elite traits and checks pretty much all the boxes. He has the size, strength, and quickness to match up with nearly any defensive lineman that lines up across from him. He has the flexibility to play with good leverage as a run blocker and does a nice job of driving defenders off the ball. Coaches love to see offensive linemen finish their blocks and Rice takes pride in that, keeping a running tally of how many pancake blocks he’s had so far this season. Rice doesn’t get much work as a pass blocker during games but in the camp setting he has shown the footwork, patience, hand placement, sense of timing, and aggressiveness that should give college coaches a lot of confidence.

With Travis Shaw already onboard, Rice gives North Carolina their second five-star in the 2022 class. The last time the Tar Heels signed two five-stars was the 2007 class with Marvin Austin and Dwight Jones. The North Carolina program has been recruiting very well over the last couple cycles but they are lacking talent along the offensive line. That unit has struggled this season so Rice will plug a very big hole in North Carolina’s depth chart.

The ripple effects of Rice’s commitment could be felt for years in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Tar Heels have owned the recruiting trail in Virginia this year. Four of the top ten players in the state are committed to North Carolina and the Tar Heels have commitments from six Virginians, two more than they do from their own state. Rice’s commitment could also help the Tar Heels land superstar receiver Andre Greene Jr., a Virginia native that lists North Carolina as one of his top contenders.

Rice’s commitment to North Carolina speaks volumes about their ability to form a sense of community and comfort level that can overcome strong family ties to conference rival Virginia.

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