Between the injuries, the close losses, the record, and the ball not bouncing our way, there wasn’t a whole lot to love about North Carolina’s 2017 football season. But one bright spot that shone at times was the play of the young and inexperienced secondary.
The 2017 Tar Heels were woeful against the run, but limited opposing passers to just a 55% completion rate. The Tar Heels also defensed 59 passes, which is not a bad number by any means. However, they only brought in 7 interceptions. Going by other teams’ rates, you generally expect an interception for every five defended passes. That means that the Tar Heels missed out on an expected five additional interceptions. Remember that the Heels lost three games by one possession, and try not to whack your head on the table.
One area that does need improvement is the big play. Despite their strong completion rate defense, the Heels were susceptible to the deep ball and gave up some truly awful catch and runs. The Heels surrendered 22 passing touchdowns, the most since 2014. That’s to be expected from a young secondary which, let’s face it, wasn’t getting much help up front. One year older and wiser, UNC’s secondary should be able to improve upon that.
Star CB MJ Stewart is gone, as is Donnie Miles (who had much of his final campaign at UNC cut short by injury), but the Heels return a terrific safety in junior Myles Dorn, who will be the star of the secondary, if not the entire defense. Observers of UNC’s first scrimmages described him as being “like a QB back there.” Dorn had a strong sophomore year, with 71 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 5 pass breakups. Don’t be shocked if we see Dorn’s name mentioned in All-ACC discussions in 2018.
Joining Dorn at safety is senior JK Britt, who registered 53 tackles and one INT last season, and Myles Wolfolk, who tallied 32 tackles and 2 INT. Both Dorn and Britt were effective against the run and were frequently called upon to support Carolina’s porous frontline.
At cornerback, the unit will likely be led by junior KJ Sails, so often the target of opposing passers last year. With MJ Stewart lining up on the other side of the field, Sails was picked on often, but did manage to break up 13 passes for the year. He’ll be looking to make the jump to #1. Also returning will be junior Patrice Rene, who has been inconsistent in his first two years at Chapel Hill, but has been said to show tremendous improvement in camp. The Tar Heels will play their first two games without the services of sophomore CBs Greg Ross and Tre Shaw due to suspension. Just call it a *ahem* secondary violation (I’ll show myself out...).
With a lot of returning talent, there aren’t many new faces in the secondary. However, one player to look for is freshman Trey Morrison, who has impressed in training camp and may be Carolina’s lead option at the nickel position. Another frosh who may break into the lineup is Javon Terry, a Wake Forest native who came in as one of the top-50 safety recruits in the country, according to Rivals. He’d be 4th on the depth chart at best, but with the way injuries snakebit Carolina last year, a little depth would be very welcome indeed.
Outside of the defensive line, Carolina’s secondary is probably its most experienced unit. The loss of Stewart hurts obviously, but if Carolina’s returning defensive backs can raise their game and support Dorn in the secondary, this could be a real bounceback year for Carolina’s pass defense. Let’s just hope we can say the same against the run.