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July 26, 2012Tar Heel Illustrated has confirmed from multiple sources within the UNC athletics department that incoming freshman linebacker Junior Gnonkonde of Lakeland (Ga.) has been cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse, and will be eligible to play for the Tar Heels this fall.
"They (UNC's NCAA compliance staff) told me the NCAA has cleared him and he's good. He's eligible," said one source close to the situation after confirming Gnonkonde's clearance from UNC Football Director of Operations Joe Haydon, the University's liaison between the football program and the NCAA.
The 6-5, 225-pound Gnonkonde initially committed to Georgia Tech during his junior year of high school, but the Yellow Jackets backed off on him due to transcript concerns.
Gnonkonde, a native of Ivory Coast, came to the United States in middle school to play basketball and never returned home to his war-torn native land.
Instead, Gnonkonde wound up being legally adopted by John White, Athletics Director and head football coach at rural Lanier County High School.
"Junior didn't speak any English at age 14. He spoke his native language, and fluent French, German, and he taught himself Spanish and English since he's been here. He speaks five languages, and I'm still trying to learn English," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora on Signing Day.
"He's very focused with where he comes from. They're very focused on academics and they're very focused on the athletic field. He had a plan when he came here, and he's stayed pretty focused," said White of Gnokonde.
But because of the NCAA's rules regarding international transfer student-athletes, the governing body was initially going to weigh his collegiate eligibility on grades he produced in middle school, which is considered high school work in Africa.
"He had a really good high school career at his school in Georgia, but for whatever reason, the NCAA, if your country starts high school in the sixth grade, that's when they start your clock," said one source to THI early Thursday morning.
The NCAA has successfully ruled in favor of multiple Ivory Coast natives who defected to the United States after initially 'red flagging' their grades, but they have to go through this tedious process of getting their grades evaluated by the Clearinghouse with original transcripts from Africa, which is obviously a time-consuming endeavor.
"They (the NCAA) used his sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grade as his 'Clearinghouse' grades, but we did a waiver and let them know he did great in high school, and said, 'Hey, why don't we use the high school grades?' and they (the NCAA) did that."
"He's pretty excited (about North Carolina)," White said of Gnonkonde.
"Most of all he's excited because he's getting back into a University that the academics are as good as what they are at (Georgia) Tech. He hasn't lost focus on that. He's going to North Carolina for the education. Most of his decision-making in this was academics."
Gnonkonde was able to get to know some of his new teammates this summer as he participated in the second summer session in Chapel Hill, and now he'll be gearing up for his return to UNC to report to training camp next week.
THI will have more on this developing story as more news becomes available, but we can confirm for certain that Gnonkonde will be a Tar Heel this fall.