Back in 2019 when UNC brought back Mack Brown, just about everyone thought that the secondary was going to end up being the strongest part of the defense. New co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman made his bones in giving power to his secondary, and UNC legend Dre Bly was going to take his NFL experience to coach up all the high-level recruits he could bring in.
It didn’t work out that way.
Things started to fall apart in 2021, and continued in 2022. If anything, it got worse: the Tar Heels only picked up a total of nine interceptions the entire season, had 49 pass breakups, and opponents averaged 272 yards a game passing. The last number doesn’t seem bad until you look at some of the quarterbacks they played against. Appalachian State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke, Pittsburgh, and Wake Forest all passed for over 300 yards.
In the end, Bly moved on from UNC and as we’ll see several players in the secondary followed him out the door. It’s left Carolina with a a roster that will be filled with new players and a new coach. This, more than any other area on the field, is the biggest question mark going into 2023.
Good lord where to start. We start with the man in charge of the cornerbacks, Dre Bly. It’s clear that he had a large part of the room loyal to him, as his departure also saw a rush of transfers from the room. An eye-popping seven players in the secondary left UNC in the transfer portal alone. This includes multi-year starters Storm Duck, Tony Grimes, and Cam Kelly. All three suffered from the same issue: they entered college with high recruiting marks and seemed to hit their peak early. Duck also had trouble staying healthy, but it’s clear that by the time the season was over he was out of favor with the coaches.
Obviously this is a loss of a lot of institutional knowledge, but anyone who watched the play of the secondary last season knew that something had to change. Sometimes the best way to get that change is to bring in new people. Without anyone graduating, all of those losses were solely from exits via the transfer portal. It had been set up as a position of strength for the Tar Heels and in the end they are just starting over.
Believe it or not, the Tar Heels do have people returning who have played in the secondary. Some of them have actually started — DeAndre Boykins, Giovanni Biggers, and Will Hardy all played in every game for Carolina last season, and saw their roles increase as the season went along. Boykins is even an ACC Player of the Week winner, after his performance against Duke last season. They will all likely see significant time this season and at least provide some institutional knowledge for the rest of the team.
Carolina also returns Don Chapman and Lejond Cavazos in depth roles. Chapman has been a steady ship in the secondary, never a star but comes to work and is in his fifth (COVID) year under Brown. Cavazos took some time to adjust from Ohio State but ended the year as a starter in the Holiday Bowl after the exodus. Unfortunately, he’s going to start the season on the sidelines due to an injury. It will likely put him behind again, but with all the change over, when he can get back on the field he should get a chance to make an impact.
With Bly leaving, a new coach had to step in, and that coach is Jason Jones. Jones had worked with Charlton Warren before in Indiana, so he has some familiarity with the coaching style UNC is working with now. Jones is not nearly as splashy a name as Bly, but he has 20 years in coaching and can point to some coaching successes that Bly couldn’t. It’s a sign of UNC “getting back to basics” in a way.
All the openings in the secondary had to be filled, and so Carolina went right into the transfer portal to find some bodies. Alijah Huzzie is the biggest get — he came from East Tennessee State, was a first team All-American in FCS and made a strong impression during spring practice. The other transfers are all depth pieces, but with a lot of on the field experience. Armani Chapman, Derrik Allen, and Antavious Lane all left their previous schools with their COVID year available to use. They’ll be given a chance but they at least provide depth after a lot headed across the country.
The same goes for incoming freshmen, as the three signees from this class were three stars, per 24/7. The emphasis appears to be to get through this season with those who want to be with this staff, grad transfers who can be coached, and then coach up the new arrivals to handle the transition. Carolina currently has nine players as freshmen or redshirt freshmen. They may see the field, but at the very least they are getting experience with different players than last year’s group.
With so much turnover and an emphasis on a different type of player in the secondary, it’s clear that the coaching staff is employing a process of starting from the beginning with this area. Optimistically, you can easily say that things can’t get worse than last year, and the incoming transfers may not be stars, but they also get the job done. You have a FCS player who’s looking to take the next step while several others are looking for one last chance on a team with a star quarterback that will put a spotlight on them. The new coach is a veteran who has worked with others on the staff and is a coaching lifer. Clearly the thought is that this isn’t going to get fixed in one year, but that just by getting back to basics will be an improvement. It’s still a huge question mark, and the potential is there for things to be just as bad as last year. If it is, the Tar Heels will be lucky to repeat their nine wins. If it’s just medicare instead, that might be enough.