In the end, maybe the reason why Jay Bateman couldn’t last on the Tar Heel coaching staff was because his scheme was focused on the secondary leading the charge, but the secondary seemed like it couldn’t make a stop if their life depended on it. Certainly, the Tar Heels have talent back there, but a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness always made that area of the defense feel lacking.
You want to know how lacking? Only six players on the entire team scored an interception last season. Of those six, three were linebackers.
Opponents passed for 3094 yards against the Tar Heels last season, good for a tie for 84th in FBS. There are 130 teams in the FBS, and the Heels tied with Northern Illinois. These two stats were a major reason why UNC finished 105th in scoring defense last season. Clearly something had to change.
It would seem that Mack Brown determined that his defensive coordinator/safeties coach, Bateman, and the cornerbacks coach, Dre Bly, just weren’t on the same page and weren’t going to get there. And if Brown had to choose between his former star player who played in the NFL and has been one of the area’s best recruiters and a defensive coordinator he didn’t know before this stint in Chapel Hill and hadn’t yet coached a top-50 defense, he was going with Bly every time. Thus, Bateman is gone, enter Gene Chizik to head the defense, and enter Charlton Warren to partner with Chizik and take on the role of Safeties coach. And it wouldn’t surprise me if while Bly still heads the corners in title, he'll be getting a fair bit of support from Warren when it comes to the product on the field.
With all that said, let’s take a look at the back end of the defense for this year.
The top of this list has to be Bateman, who along with being the defensive coordinator, was in charge of coaching safeties. Because of NCAA limits on how many coaches you can have on the sideline, it’s not uncommon for coordinators to take on a position group, but it might have been a little much to entrust Bateman with a position group he’d rarely coached before in his first experience at the Power 5 level. He’s now the inside linebackers coach at Florida, which is a position he’s got a lot more experience with.
On the field itself, Carolina didn’t lose much of the roster except for Trey Morrison. Morrison was a senior in 2021, but was allowed a fifth year thanks to Covid and decided to move on to Oklahoma. The move for Morrison hurts from a depth and leadership perspective, but from a stats perspective he had a weaker year in 2021 than in 2020 and generally hadn’t really improved since he was moved from nickel to safety after his freshman year. He was a reliable tackler, but didn’t have many breakups and it’s probably not a coincidence he left with a new pair of coaches on that side of the ball.
Cornerback Kyler McMichael went a different route, deciding to go to the pros and singing as an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay. That McMichael got the biggest bonus of the Tampa UDFA’s shows he has a chance to make the team out of camp, at least on special teams. Their leadership will be a loss in an already thin secondary.
The Tar Heels return a great duo of starting cornerbacks in Storm Duck and Tony Grimes. They have experience and give Chizik and Warren a solid foundation to build the rest of the secondary. The question is going to be whether both can stay healthy. Duck stormed...sorry...onto the scene his freshman year but he’s been limited by injuries since. He only played in about half of Carolina’s games last year, and finished the year strong but was leaned on as the secondary just kept getting tested throughout. Grimes, meanwhile, led the team in pass breakups and continues a remarkable story as someone pressed into action quickly due to depth issues.
Cam’Ron Kelly, meanwhile, leads the safety group in his senior season. He’s coming off being third team All-ACC, a sign of just how good he was considering how weak the secondary was for Carolina last season. Unfortunately, he was also on the highlight reel of the loss to NC State. Still, he’s going to be relied on to anchor a relatively thin group, and with responsibilities lifted thanks to the new scheme, there’s hope he’ll come out better for the experience. He’ll be joined by hard-hitting Ja’Qurious Conley, who’s recovering from a brutal knee injury but should be back in the early part of the season.
Key Additions and Newcomers
You have to lead off with Chizik and Warren here, as the new voices leading the secondary will help clean up a lot of the problems they faced. There’s been a sense that communication across the entire defense is already a lot better than the end of last season, which should lead to fewer breakdowns and less confusion at the snap, both of which plagued last year’s team.
From the transfer portal, cornerback Lejond Cavazos moves over from Ohio State to the Tar Heels, joining his friend, high school classmate, and ace Carolina recruiter Armando Bacot. He has twelve games under his belt for the Buckeyes, and brings some needed depth an experience to a secondary lacking both.
As far as signees go, the highest rated player, per 24/7, would be Tayon Holloway, a four-star defensive back prospect who was the eighth-best player in Virginia. With how thin the roster is, he’ll have a chance to see the field, certainly on special teams and maybe even as depth at corner or safety.
There is talent in the secondary but it’s still thin on experience. The focus by Chizik to simplify the playbook and shift the responsibility of the calls from the secondary to the front should help a lot of the breakdowns that occurred last season, and players are looking to make a name for themselves after some embarrassing tape in 2021.
If Carolina’s defense is to improve, this is the group that will have to do it. They’ll need more break-ups, more interceptions, and fewer injuries. If they can do that, they’ll take pressure off an inexperienced offense and allow them to grow into their roles.