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Comebacks from injury could show us a rejuvenated UNC team this week

Injured Tar Heels are coming back to practice en masse and could make a difference against Virginia

North Carolina v Georgia Tech Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the back end of UNC’s defense has been decimated by injury and been susceptible to attack by opposing offenses the past few weeks. Corners Cam’Ron Kelly and Patrice Rene were lost to the season pretty early on, pushing true freshman Storm Duck into extended action earlier than expected alongside Greg Ross and Trey Morrison. Injuries to safety Myles Wolfolk and Morrison have now forced the Heels to field a phenomenally inexperienced secondary, that only got worse with Duck’s injury against Duke. Alongside stalwart safety Myles Dorn, junior backup corner Greg Ross, redshirt junior backup safety D.J. Ford, and redshirt freshman freshman DeAndre Hollins made up the rest of a backfield that couldn’t even field a nickel corner. As I wrote about in my position breakdown, some of those spots have held up better than others, but there are a couple of weak spots, absolutely no positional depth, and it is unsustainable to keep putting a linebacker like Jeremiah Gemmel or Dom Ross in the slot in coverage. It almost cost UNC the game against Duke and, if it were to stay this way, would put a serious damper on the Heels’ hopes for the rest of the season.

So it was a huge piece of good news when Brant Wilkerson-New of Sports Illustrated’s HeelsMaven reported that, according to Mack Brown, Wolfolk, Morrison, and Duck along with former starting center Nick Polino have returned to practice this week. Those former three, though, could entirely change the complexion of this defense from a front-level disruptor that tries to hang on in the back to the kind of legitimate three-level force that we saw early in the season when this team was beating South Carolina and a play away from beating Clemson. Here’s the full quote from Brown regarding their availability:

[Wolfolk, Morrison, Duck, and Jace Ruder] are practicing. They’re doing a good job; we’ll have to watch this video today to see if they’re well enough to play, we’ll have to let the trainers check them tonight to see if they’ve got soreness. Jace Ruder probably will not play, but the other guys have a chance to play because they’re doing a good job.


[Storm Duck] practiced [Wednesday] for the first time this week.

Having depth and experience in the secondary, not to mention Wolfolk and Morrison’s game-changing talent and ability, would be a huge gift to this defense that badly needs guys to start contesting the ball in the air right now, especially with the extremely-capable-of-lighting-you-up Bryce Perkins coming to town on Saturday. Wolfolk, with his ability to fill holes in the run game, would be invaluable in stopping the ground threat that Perkins poses as well, even though that’s been a little limited this season thanks to injury, and, more importantly, give Jay Bateman more issues to limit dual-threat quarterbacks than mixing up defensive line rush angles and hoping for the best in the secondary: Wolfolk can force that issue like no other defensive back on the team can.

This becomes a different team on defense with even one of the injured men in the secondary back on the field and playing at 100%: it gets to rotate out bodies, it gets different dimensions for different situations, and just gets more talented. It’s going to be UNC’s job to make Bryce Perkins struggle as much as possible on Saturday, and getting some guys back on the defensive back end is going to be vital to making that happen.