Carolina’s secondary for the last couple of seasons has been a group that has had some promise, but injuries constantly kept getting in the way. This was especially true for Storm Duck, who excited us all with his excellent play last season before going down with a season-ending injury against Boston College. Still, by the end of the season we got to see some really good defense being played in the secondary, and this year they should be one of the deeper units on the field for the Tar Heels.
Let’s take a look at this year’s secondary, and discuss some of the players that will be key to UNC’s success.
The biggest factor that is going to come into play for this group on the football field is depth, and nothing highlights said depth like the fact that the only key player that Mack Brown lost in the secondary going into this season is graduate transfer Patrick Rene. Following the 2020 season, Rene tested the NFL Draft waters before ultimately deciding to transfer to Rutgers. Remarkably, the other two schools that tried to recruit him are Oklahoma and Auburn, but ultimately Rene decided to go back to the program that he first committed to back in 2016.
Rene played in six games last season, and finished with a stat line of 20 solo tackles, eight assisted tackles, four passes defended, and one forced fumble. His passes defended total tie for the second-most for the season behind returning defensive back Kyler McMichael.
Speaking of returning players, there’s a slew of talent that the Tar Heels are returning in the secondary position. When it comes to Kyler McMichael, the junior defensive back not only led the team in passes defended, but he also logged 22 solo tackles and had four assisted tackles. Unfortunately he never earned the right to wear the turnover belt, but that could change this year with an overall beefed up defense under Jay Bateman.
One player that did get to wear the turnover belt last year, however, was Trey Morrison. In the final two games last season, Morrison really turned up his intensity and went after other teams. In the games against Miami and Texas A&M, Morrison recorded 12 combined solo tackles, and threw in a sack against the Aggies. My lasting memory was seeing him in every single play, and I can only hope that’s a sign of good things to come in the 2021 season.
Going back to solo tackles, here's a fun fact: four of the top six players in solo tackles last year were in the secondary, and all of them will be returning this year for the Tar Heels. While the number of tackles at the position isn’t particularly surprising, it’s still worth noting that Don Chapman, Trey Morrison, Cam’Ron Kelly, and Ja’Qurious Conley were all right behind Chazz Surratt in tackles, and all of them are returning to the team this season.
Giovanni Biggers is a player that defensive coordinator Jay Bateman expects to have a very good 2021 season. Inside Carolina did a piece discussing the safety position and who would play the most snaps. Here is what Bateman had to say about that, as well as what he expected from Biggers:
“I think Gio Biggers has improved a ton. I would expect Trey Morrison, Conley, and Biggers to handle the majority of it and Kelly kind to be the fourth guy,” the source said. “But that could change. They are all four pretty good players. Obviously, Conley is the most talented. I think it will be Gio, Trey, and Conley handling most of it. Trey will do like he has done for a while and play some nickel. And then I think Chapman will pretty much handle the nickel.”
On Biggers: “He has improved his body. He is really smart. He has worked his ass off. He has improved physically. We operate better when he is out there... In the spring game he was our best player on defense. He was knocking everything down.”
Two more players that are expected to be standouts for this unit are Tony Grimes and Storm Duck. Grimes for the most part had a very predictable freshman season for someone who reclassified to join up with the Tar Heels one year early. While that sounds like a dig, it’s really more of an understandable learning curve that comes with the elevated level of competition at the college level. However, in the Orange Bowl game against Texas A&M, Grimes gave us all a taste of what to potentially expect this season. He finished the game with three solo tackles, a sack, and two passes defended. Grimes looked as much like a lockdown defender as we had seen during that game, and Mack Brown anticipates him being a big-time player for the Heels this season.
Finally, there is Storm Duck. I can confidently say that he is one of the players this season that I am the most excited to watch, as he was an absolute joy to watch play in the game against Syracuse last season. Prior to last season, we started to see him blossom into the suffocating defender that we are all expecting this season, and hopefully we will get to see him rock the turnover belt at least a few times.
Regardless of him playing only one game last season, Storm Duck is still getting a lot of love from college football analysts. Pro Football Focus named Duck as the best cornerback in the ACC, and also has him listed as one of the top ten cornerbacks in the country. Here are some last parting words about the star cornerback from fellow star DB, Tony Grimes (per Inside Carolina):
“Storm is Storm Duck. Storm is like he never left. He got better. That’s one thing I can say. Storm is gonna be a dude. Storm is gonna be a dude that college offenses have to watch out for.”
While UNC’s secondary truly looks like it is mostly in good hands with returning players alone, Mack Brown does have some new talent that he has brought in. Four-star safety Dontavius Nash arrived in Chapel Hill out of Hunter Huss High School in Gastonia, NC. He is the 279th-best player in the 2021 class, and the 19th-best safety in the nation. Nash finished his high school career with 127 total tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
The other player that Brown has brought in to help his defense is three-star cornerback Dontae Balfour. Arriving out out Bradford High School in Starke, FL, Balfour is the 443rd-best player in the 2021 class, and the 33rd-best cornerback in the country. He finished his senior season of high school with 39 tackles and three interceptions while playing on defense. He also saw some time on the offensive side of the ball, catching 25 passes for 386 yards to help his team get to the second round of the 4A Playoffs.
It’s a well-known fact that when it comes to the secondary, their jobs are made much harder when the front seven aren’t able to generate enough pressure on the quarterback. The great news is that I don’t think that will be the case this season, but even with that said, this year’s secondary is going to make it really difficult for opposing offenses whether the QB is getting pressured or not. Storm Duck and Tony Grimes are going to be massive headaches for wide receivers, Trey Morrison, Ja’Qurious Conley, and Gio Biggers are all excellent candidates to play cleanup and get some hits in via blitz packages, and there’s still somehow even more depth behind just these players.
Will this be a world-beating secondary? I’m not ready to say that until the game against Virginia Tech, but I will say that this is unquestionably the best secondary that Carolina has had since I have covered this team for Tar Heel Blog. Speaking of, do be sure to check out the other positional previews by clicking the links below.