NCAA allows UNC star WR Walker to play in ’23

North Carolina wide receiver Tez Walker will be eligible to play in 2023 after new information emerged that the NCAA said school officials “failed to provide” previously.

Walker is a transfer from Kent State, and his initial eligibility for the 2023 season was denied because he had transferred twice. His case became a flashpoint for NCAA rules, in part because Walker hadn’t played during the COVID-19 season of 2020 at North Carolina Central, which did not have a season because of the pandemic.

Thursday’s announcement did not specify what the new information was that prompted the NCAA to reverse its decision. Walker missed No. 14 North Carolina’s first four games, which the NCAA intimated in a statement could have been avoided if the university staff had “submitted this information weeks ago.”

Even with Walker’s eligibility confirmed after months of public bickering, NCAA officials and UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham sparred publicly in statements Thursday in the wake of the decision. The NCAA said the “entire unfortunate episode could have been avoided” with timely submission of materials. Cunningham responded that UNC put forward the information as it was made available and said the NCAA “delayed making the correct decision.”

The school posted a video to social media later Thursday that showed Tar Heels coach Mack Brown delivering the news to Walker about his eligibility.

Walker, widely considered a top-50 prospect for next year’s NFL draft, transferred to North Carolina in part to play with star quarterback Drake Maye.

Walker is eligible to join the undefeated Tar Heels for Saturday’s game against Syracuse, and a source told ESPN that he is expected to play, as he has been practicing with the team. His snaps are uncertain at this point.

The 6-foot-3 wide receiver hauled in 58 receptions for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns last season at Kent State.

“I’m so excited and thankful that the NCAA has granted my eligibility to play this season,” Walker said in a statement. “This hasn’t been easy, but I’m looking forward to putting this in the past and moving forward. I always knew UNC was a special place, but it’s proved it over and over again throughout the last few months. I’ve received so much support from the University, the athletics department, my coaches, the staff and my teammates.”

In an unusually pointed statement, both NCAA president Charlie Baker and Georgia president Jere Morehead, the Division I board of directors chair, chastised North Carolina officials for their handling of Walker’s case.

“It is unfortunate that UNC failed to provide this important information previously,” the NCAA said in its statement, which is attributed to both Baker and Morehead. “While we must be careful not to compromise a student-athlete’s right to privacy when it comes to sensitive issues, we want to assure the Division I membership and everyone watching how the new transfer rules are applied, that this meets the new transfer waiver standards.”

The statement concluded: “UNC’s behavior and decision to wage a public relations campaign is inappropriate and outside the bounds of the process UNC’s own staff supported. Had the UNC staff not behaved in this fashion and submitted this information weeks ago, this entire unfortunate episode could have been avoided.”

UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement: “In our stated effort to exhaust all avenues, new information about this matter came to our attention and we immediately gathered and submitted it for consideration. The NCAA reached the right decision that restores Tez’s experience as a student-athlete and a Tar Heel.”

Brown, who had been overtly critical of the initial NCAA decision, said in a statement Thursday: “Everything that’s transpired over the last few months has been with the sole purpose of helping and supporting [Walker], and now he’s going to have a chance to live his dream. We want to express our gratitude to the people at UNC who have worked tirelessly to assist Tez. We never gave up. We also want to thank the NCAA for being willing to re-examine Tez’s case, and ultimately deciding to grant him his eligibility.”

The last previous ruling on Walker came Sept. 7, and it sparked criticism in statements from Brown and Cunningham.

Brown said at the time that he didn’t know whether he had “ever been more disappointed” in a group than he was in the NCAA. He ended his statement by saying: “SHAME ON YOU!” Cunningham called the decision “maddening, frustrating and wrong.”

That prompted an NCAA response the next week, with Morehead and another official chastising North Carolina officials and saying they were “troubled” by the school’s response. The statement said “violent and possibly criminal threats” had been directed at committee members.

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