Last season’s loss in Miami didn’t appear too much in the end of year highlight video, but one bright spot, maybe the only one, from that game was Bryson Richardson’s interception against fellow then-true freshman N’Kosi Perry. Richardson’s pick wasn’t just a true freshman making a play, it was the first interception of the 2018 season for the Carolina defense.
Once that first interception came, the pace picked up a bit more, and they finished with seven on the year, tying for 101st out of 129 programs in the country. But by starting the country without an interception for the first month, UNC didn’t do itself any favors in trying to put together a respectable season. If Carolina wants to achieve the new coach’s stated goal to go bowling this season, they need to first come out of September with a better record than they did last season, and while a lot has changed from this year’s team to last, it’s still going to be crucial to snag more than one interception in the month.
Fortunately for the folks in blue, both the cornerback and safety groups have an intriguing blend of experience and youthful talent, as well as a new defensive scheme that is designed to put them in the best position to make plays.
Any conversation about Tar Heel cornerbacks has to start with Patrice Rene. Last season, he was one of a few players rotating as the number two cornerback behind K.J. Sails to start the year. Sails got hurt and only ended up playing in three games, and in his stead, Rene really stepped up as a consistent starter.
Sails has since transferred to USF to be closer to family, and Rene enters the year as the number one cornerback in a deep, but young group. And there’s a lot that’s intriguing about him: The University lists Rene at 6’2” 208 lbs, which is just about as big a corner as you’ll see in the country in college or the pros (Rasul Douglas, for comparison, entered the NFL Combine at 6’2, 209 and measured at the 94th percentile in height and weight for all cornerbacks in MockDraftable’s database). And in a game of football that’s more pass-happy, and finding more matchup nightmares at receiver than every before, big corners are at a premium. Just look at the premier guys in the NFL: Richard Sherman (6’3), Darius Slay (6’0), Stephon Gilmore (6’1), Jalen Ramsey (6’1), etc. Sure, you have your Casey Haywards and Tre’Davious Whites, both 5’11, but there’s a clear new mold of cornerback in the NFL. And if a trend has made it to the NFL, you bet it’s entrenched in the sport’s lower levels. Rene is now an archetypal corner in build and last year developed the skills and acumen to match it.
There is a deep group of young cornerbacks who will be playing alongside Rene. The group is so deep that in the spring head coach Mack Brown felt comfortable enough to move slot corner Corey Bell Jr. over to receiver. The whole group is competing and it’s hard to tell at this point who’s going to play, but based on press (including my own interview with Rene a month ago), I’ll just run through a few guys whose names keep popping up:
Greg Ross is the cornerback besides Rene with the most experience, and will likely be asked to anchor the group while the youth in the DB room finds its footing. Cam’ron Kelly is a freshman transfer from Auburn who is still waiting on the NCAA to announce if he’ll be eligible to play this season or if he’ll have to sit out a year for enrolling in college early. It’s unbelievable that we’re this close to the season opener and we still don’t know if Kelly will be eligible to play in 2019, but that’s a discussion for another day. Tre Shaw only played in four games last year, preserving his redshirt year, but he’s who I’d peg as the corner most likely to make the biggest leap from a year ago to this season. Storm Duck is a true freshman from South Carolina, known for his speed, who has reportedly been impressive throughout camp.
The discussion about UNC’s safeties has to start with Myles Dorn, the group’s unquestioned leader. Dorn has played in thirty games since coming to Chapel Hill, making him one of the most experienced players on the entire roster.
That experience shows up in games, too, as he is noticeably confident in his instincts like only a veteran can be. As a safety, you only get about two steps to diagnose everything that’s going on with the other 21 players on the field. Keying the play correctly can be the difference between a dump-off and a deep shot, or a 3-yard run and a 23-yarder, so suffice it to say that good instincts are vital at the position.
This clip is only about a minute and a half long. Watch the first play, an interception against Virginia. It looks like UNC is playing in a cover two, based on Patrice Rene’s eyes after the snap (he looks at the quarterback and stays in the flat). Because Rene is responsible for the flat (shallow part of the field) and Dorn is responsible for anything deep in his half of the field, Dorn shades over to the outside receiver once he gets past Rene. Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins throws the ball to the slot receiver thinking that Dorn has moved to the outside and he can put the ball over the top. Before Perkins even releases the ball, though, Dorn reads Perkins and reacts, literally doing a 180, and gets to the ball in time to make a play.
Slated to start alongside Dorn at strong safety is Myles Wolfolk. Wolfolk has played safety, nickel, corner, and even saw some time at linebacker last season. Strong safety is ultimately his best position, and at the very least he should rack up tackles this year. Wolfolk missed most of last season with an injury, but was actually tied with Dorn for the team lead in interceptions in 2017.
Wolfolk is arguably the best tackler in the secondary, or at least the most fun tackler to watch. Box safeties often find themselves trying to bring down ball carriers trying to get to the outside, which requires taking the right angle every single time: too steep and you lose contain, too shallow and you have to contort yourself to make a play after keeping the run inside. Wolfolk does an excellent job of tracking the ball carrier and squaring up his hips at the right spot consistently. He reminds me a lot of a rugby player when he tackles, which is just about the biggest compliment I can give a defensive player. (Pete Carroll has been the unofficial leader of teaching rugby style tackling in football for safety reasons, but I think it’s also simply a more efficient way to tackle.)
A quick note: Bryson Richardson was one of my favorite players from last year’s recruiting class, and is someone who could have played corner, nickel, or safety. Unfortunately, he hurt his Achilles tendon this offseason and is out for the year. He’s definitely one to watch for the future if he can gain his old mobility back, though.
Jay Bateman’s scheme has been discussed, broken down, debated, hyped up, anticipated, and contemplated to death all over UNC fandom every since he took the defensive coordinator job in Chapel Hill. Chad Floyd here at Tar Heel Blog even took a look at it several months ago. Go read that, and then get it from the horse’s mouth here (from my interview):
[Coach Bateman] does a lot of different things, and pretty much just puts us in the best position to make plays. He’s a smart guy who really knows his stuff. His defenses, they’re different. He brings a whole bunch of different types of defenses, bringing blitzes from each and every corner, you don’t really know who’s blitzing or when they’re blitzing. He does a lot of different stuff, a lot of stunt packages for us. It’s incredible to have him on our staff as our defensive coordinator.
Patrice is excited, I’m excited, and there’s a lot of reason for optimism about the Tar Heel’s defensive backfield. With veteran experience, young talent, and a playcaller with a penchant for disruption, this backfield promises to be a fun one this season.