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Does UNC boast the best cornerback duo in college football?

An in-depth look into UNC’s cornerback tandem.

North Carolina v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

There have been many great duos in all of pop culture and sports: Tom and Jerry, Batman and Robin, Jordan and Pippen, and now M. J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. I know, it’s sacrilege to put them in the same breath as Tom and Jerry but let’s do it. These are two of the best corners in the country, forming possibly the best cornerback duo in the country.

It’s no surprise to anyone that UNC ranked 95 out of 127 in total defense in 2015. This poor ranking, however, had nothing to do with the defensive back play of the Tar Heels, seeing that the Heels ranked 18th in passing yards allowed per game. This top-20 ranking was strongly due to UNC’s two lockdown corners, Stewart and Lawrence.

Last season Des Lawrence posted some solid numbers from the cornerback position. In 2015 Lawrence had 59 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 14 pass breakups. To give this more context, Lawrence allowed 33 receptions on 61 targets for a total of 392 yards and 0 touchdowns in 2015. The total QBR he garnered during the 2015 campaign was 60.3. At ACC media day we learned that Des Lawrence was named preseason first-team ALL-ACC, as a result of last year’s performance. Despite earning this honor though, it can be argued that he may not even be UNC’s best cornerback, due to M.J. Stewart’s productivity last year. Stewart put up even better numbers than his preseason first-team ALL-ACC teammate.

In comparison to Des Lawrence, M.J. Stewart posted 62 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 14 pass breakups. Stewart gave up 31 receptions on 69 targets for only 325 yards and 1 lone touchdown. The total QBR that Stewart gave up was a staggering 39.8. This number ranks him in the top 10 in the nation last year in total QBR allowed. Stewart also was ranked 2nd in the ACC in yards-per-completion, at 10.44 per reception.

UNC was ranked 3rd in the ACC in opponent’s completion percentage (58.6%), and 1st in the ACC in opponents passing efficiency. All of these stats are even more impressive if you consider the fact that UNC ranked 2nd to last in the ACC in pressure rate on opposing quarterbacks. Despite a lack of a true pass rush, combined with the fact that Stewart and Lawrence spent most of their time in one-on-one coverage, really shows how valuable these two were to the pass defense last year.

Overall, Lawrence is the more physical tackler, due to his 6’1 frame, while Stewart is more of a playmaker given his 4 interceptions last year. While their statures and playmaking skills may vary, what makes them such great corners is their ability to handle pressure and lock down opposing wide receivers. Both players ranked top four in the ACC in passes defended last year, all while being placed on relative islands the majority of the 2015 season.

UNC likes to run a lot of one-on-one single coverage with their corners. This isn’t something you can do if you have two corners who, for lack of a better word, are bums. Having good cornerbacks to lean on is important for a struggling run defense. Seeing as North Carolina ranked 121 out of 127 in rushing defense last year, it can be argued that these two corners are the most important part of the Carolina defense. Having two great corners allows the team to stack the box more to help prevent the run, which is something UNC may heavily favor doing this coming season.

The pass defense improved mightily from 2014 to 2015 (going from ranking 105 to 45) under first year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and first year defensive backs coach Charlton Warren. Another year under the system should spell for even more improvements for UNC’s top-2 corners. Time will tell if Stewart and Lawrence can build off of their 2015 season, but if they can take any steps in the positive direction, UNC could have the best cornerback tandem in the country.