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UNC Football Position Previews: Secondary

ACC passing attacks are in for a rude awakening, thanks to Dre Bly’s revamped Rude Boyz

Miami v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

For the Rude Boyz of the Carolina defense, last season’s mantra wasn’t “Next Man Up” so much as it was “Last Man Standing.” Injuries decimated the secondary. Six DBs missed a combined 50 games due to injury last season. The Tar Heels had to go deep into the Mariana Trench into the depth chart, forcing a linebacker to play at nickelback for significant portions of the season.

With the summer to recuperate, plus some exciting freshman additions, Carolina’s defensive backs figure now to be a position of strength for the defense. During preseason practice, Auburn transfer Cam’Ron Kelly spoke on the competition for places and playing time amongst the Tar Heel defensive backs:

“All our DBs can play, for-real for-real. So that’s a great thing about it, everybody’s gonna get burn,” said Kelly. “Facts: it’s deep in the Rude Boy room... It’s definitely competition. It’s competitive every day.”

An upgraded secondary will be just what the doctor ordered to help a young, unproven defensive line get after opposing quarterbacks. Let’s take a look at what promises to be an exciting group.

Key Losses

The Tar Heels did not suffer tremendously from permanent roster turnover. With the exception of safety Myles Dorn (signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings), Carolina’s secondary did not suffer any significant losses to graduation or early entry into the NFL Draft. Dorn does leave a significant hole in the defensive backfield, as he take his 83 tackles and six pass deflections with him to Minnesota (good enough for All-ACC honorable mention for his senior year).

Cornerback Tre Shaw, a former 4-star recruit from Cedar Grove (Ellenwood, GA) High School, will not play in 2020 and will assist in coaching. Injuries last season limited him to only six games. This was on the back of Shaw redshirting during his true sophomore season after playing the maximum four games allowed.

Carolina did suffer some non-permanent roster hits. Three defensive backs, D.J. Ford, Javon Terry, and Bryce Watts, have opted out of playing the 2020 season. None of the trio were guaranteed starters, but all figured to see time in Jay Bateman’s two-deep depth chart. Their scholarships will be honored, and we’ll hopefully see them in the 2021 season, provided Earth has not exploded by then.

Key Returnees

Trey Morrison

Junior defensive back Trey Morrison is a name that keeps coming off the tongue of Mack Brown. He’s a versatile athlete that is preparing to play five positions in the secondary, but should see most of his time at nickelback. He’s a player that Jay Bateman and Dre Bly are counting on to make plays for a Tar Heels secondary that is shifting mindsets from survive to thrive.

Trey is physical enough to play either safety position. He demonstrated monstrous strength and Zen-like concentration to intercept NCSU’s Devin Leary while being face-masked by Thayer Thomas in Carolina’s 41-10 demolition of the Wolfpack. Go to the 2:18 mark of these glorious highlights to see:

Similar to how Phil Longo kept a lot of QB-run plays out of the script to protect Sam Howell, so too did Jay Bateman keep things simple to protect his thin secondary. With a veritable Chinese buffet of players to choose from now, the Rude Boyz (and Trey Morrison in particular,) will be a lot more aggressive trying to make plays.

Myles Wolfolk

Redshirt-senior strong safety Myles Wolfolk’s season was a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. He started the season with a bang, intercepting South Carolina twice during the fourth quarter with the game’s outcome very much in the balance. Jump to the 3:11 minute mark on the video below to see them in back-to-back highlights; they happened in consecutive Gamecock possessions:

Good quickly turned to bad when Myles suffered an injury during a shock loss to Appalachian State, and was out for the next four games before returning for the Virginia game. Instead of helping steady the ship against an out-of-his-mind Bryce Perkins, Myles was hurt again, this time for the rest of the season.

This season, Myles will fit into Mack Brown’s preference for players playing multiple positions, as he’s been all over the defensive backfield, and in at linebacker during his sophomore campaign. He can hit but is also quick, which should allow Carolina to compete with pass-happy offenses, while still being able to stop the run. Wolfolk’s biggest challenge this season will be staying healthy. UNC suffered in each of the eight games he missed, and lost both of the games that he started in but left early due to injury.

Patrice Rene

COVID-19 has been hard on everyone in America. Redshirt-senior cornerback Patrice Rene has had a rougher go of it than most. After tearing his ACL in Carolina’s thrilling upset over Miami, he was forced to cheer on his Tar Heel teammates as they struggled to put together a healthy, functional defensive backfield without him.

Once the season was over and the pandemic began, he was back in his hometown of Ottawa, Canada. Due to travel restrictions at the Canadian border, there was serious doubt about when he’d be able to return to Chapel Hill. But Mack Brown helped get Patrice back to UNC, and he was able to complete his ACL rehab and is prepared to compete this season.

Now that he’s back, Rene figures to have the senior performance he envisioned last year when Mack Brown returned. Only now, the surrounding cast is much improved, after having to sink or swim last season without him. As long as his knee holds out, Patrice could continue to improve on his performances during his first three campaigns, where he made 11 appearances for the Heels each season.

With a suddenly swollen roster, he won’t be rushed back, and he can steadily increase his number of snaps as the season begins, especially since the first three games should be winnable without him. If he’s up to speed by November, UNC could be in a strong position to play in the ACC championship game.

Storm Duck

Then freshman Storm Duck probably came to Chapel Hill with a similar mindset as Marcus Paige. Get reps behind Kendall Marshall then eventually take over the reins. However, with the calamitous cavalcade of injuries to the secondary, it wasn’t long before young Storm was thrown into the... storm. After some initial struggles and tough lessons (most notably in the Virginia game), Storm was able to break through the dark clouds and into calm waters. Storm had an interception on Senior Day against Mercer (coincidentally during a terrible storm that kept Kenan Stadium from filling the stands for the first time last season) and this brilliant pick-six during the Military Bowl against Temple:

Storm Duck finished the season with 37 tackles (28 solo), five passes defensed, and two interceptions, with the aforementioned pick-six. Defensive backs coach Dre Bly has complimented Storm on his mindset from day one, and has confidence that with his size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and quickness, he can be effective in solo coverage.

This will be paramount to Carolina’s defensive success next season, as the defensive line has hemorrhaged talent, and will need the secondary to blanket receivers to give them time to hit the quarterback.

Newcomers

Kyler McMichael

Former Clemson cornerback Kyler McMichael sat out last season due to his transfer and used his time to acclimate himself with Jay Bateman’s new defensive system. At 6-foot-2.5, he is a tall corner and will be absolutely vital towards covering big receivers such as Florida State’s Tamorrion Terry, Virginia’s Hasise Dubois, and Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt. With D.J. Ford sitting this season out, that height will be vital to stopping opponents from taking advantage of shorter corners with a smaller catch radius.

Additionally, McMichael could be considered the fastest cornerback in the DB room. Having a tall, physical corner to blanket go-routes will help the green defensive line make coverage sacks while the quarterback goes through his check-downs.

Ja’Qurious Conley

You’re going to see a lot of the name Ja’Qurious this season. This kid is a beast. He’s a true freshman with elite size and musculature, standing 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. I am 6-foot-2 and (thanks to the initial COVID-19 lockdown) a soft 205 pounds. If Ja’Qurious put his shoulder into my chest, I would fly through four walls like this guy. Look at this dude!

Ja’Qurious will compete for snaps at nickelback with Trey Morrison, but I expect that Jay Bateman will look for ways to get him on the field, especially with a softer schedule at the beginning of the year. It would not surprise me at all if the Rude Boyz lose Ja’Qurious next season if he puts on some more weight and moves to linebacker.

In the meantime, I would not be upset if he ditched the Subzero nickname, as I still have some lingering trauma from a certain ball-dominant, traveling do-nothing that happened to hit a shot over my beloved Tyler Zeller. I will not link that game.

Tony Grimes

The crown jewel of Carolina’s 2021 recruiting class, arriving to Chapel Hill a year early. The #1 ranked recruit in Virginia and the nation’s #1 cornerback recruit for the 2021 class. Tony Grimes is leaving Dre Bly’s old Tidewater stomping grounds and will surely follow in his new coach’s footsteps into the NFL. Listen to this young man speak. Grimes has stretch goals, and the ways and means to achieve them. Tar Heel Blog’s Jake Lawrence went into even more detail about what Grimes’s commitment meant to the Carolina football program here.

Thanks to his diligent work in the classroom, Tony Grimes was able to graduate this summer by completing his final government course online. With the 2020 Virginia high school season in doubt, Grimes and his family decided that it was best for him to get to Chapel Hill this summer.

Grimes will become a contender to start immediately. He has the size (6-foot-0) and strength to compete in the ACC. Once he adds bulk to his frame from a college nutrition and weight training program, he’ll be ready to dominate. He’s a real craftsman, and thanks to his dad (who you should really give a follow to on Twitter: @dhglover, he’s hilarious), an assistant coach at Princess Anne (Virginia Beach, VA) High School, he’s been able to get some work in with another Tidewater legend, DeAngelo Hall:

Outlook

If you believe in the law of averages, you could assume that Carolina’s secondary will be injury free this season after front loading injuries last season. If you believe in science, you will be assured by the high numbers of quality players Jay Bateman will have at his disposal this year. More players will limit snaps, limit fatigue, and therefore limit injuries.

Jay Bateman was creative with his blitzes and coverages at Army, partly out of necessity since he didn’t have the caliber of athlete needed to compete with the big boys of college football. At Carolina, he’d like to get back to that kind of play-calling in order to create game-changing plays on defense. For that to work, the secondary has to be able to cover. Mack Brown is confident that the Rude Boyz can do just that, saying,

“It’s going to be fun. There’s so much depth there right now we’re just walking around like kids in a candy shop. We’re just watching… And we’ve told them, the bench is your friend if you’re a coach right now, because they all want to play, so they’ve got to compete. And when you get outstanding defensive backs that can be one-on-one with your receivers, it forces everybody to get better. We’re going to be playing against guys in practice that will be as good or better than the guys we’ll play in the game and that just makes you get better and better and better. It happened the last time we were here, it happened at Texas. When your best can play against your best, it forces them all to get better.”

Moving from the M*A*S*H to the candy shop should be sweet music to Carolina football fans’ ears. It’s never fun being the weak link on a team. With the sheer volume of injuries that piled up, you’d forgive the secondary if they used that legitimate excuse. But instead, they took their lumps, learned some tough lessons, and in the span of one offseason, figure to be a position of strength. This season, the Rude Boyz will be the #1, circled, starred note on every ACC teams’ offensive scouting report.

If you haven’t checked out all of Tar Heel Blog’s football position previews, get caught up here!

Linebackers

Defensive Line

Offensive Line

Receivers

Running Backs

Quarterbacks