North Carolina secondary wants to fix its biggest problem


North Carolina senior cornerback M.J. Stewart addresses the media at the 2017 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte on Friday (Photo by Sara D. Davis,

CHARLOTTE — The one number commonly associated with North Carolina’s secondary is far from a compliment.

It stands out in the media guide like a sore thumb. Next to now-graduated safety Dominquie Green’s name, the single digit serves as a constant reminder of the single interception UNC recorded last season.

The Tar Heels didn’t get that interception until Nov. 19, 2016, against The Citadel, their 11th game of the season. They were the very last team among all 644 NCAA football teams, regardless of division, to do so. The sole positive of the situation was a fluky stat — since Green took the ball 58 yards to the house, UNC was the only team in the country to return 100 percent of its interceptions for touchdowns.

“It seems so simple,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “We were always in position. It wasn’t like we were getting burnt every play.”

He’s right. All the other numbers proved UNC’s secondary rock solid. The Tar Heels allowed the fewest passing yards per game (180.8) and fewest touchdown passes (11) in the entire ACC. Nationwide, they were No. 1 in least touchdown passes allowed to wide receivers, surrendering just three in 13 games.

It’s an awkward situation to be in. These defensive backs excelled in plenty of categories, but they almost went an entire season without punishing a quarterback for an errant throw or successfully jumping a route.

That's not the worst possible thing, since interceptions are a sexy stat. Any NFL defender with five or more is basically a lock for the Pro Bowl. They’re the first number to appear next to a cornerback’s name when he’s drafted. And while they’re not an automatic way to make a defense great, they sure do help. They're turnovers and momentum-changers.

UNC had a surprisingly strong season with just one turnover through the air. This year, players are wondering just how much better they can be if they hold on to a few more balls.

 “It’s definitely a big goal,” Stewart said. “We work every day after OTAs and every day after summer workouts, going out with the receivers and quarterbacks, catching balls, getting a feel for the ball and making sure we look it all the way in.”

Green and cornerback Des Lawrence, both usual starters last season, are gone. But with the youth in line to replace them, the losses won’t be too devastating. The entire team seems high on Myles Dorn, who had 32 tackles as a first-year, as he slides into a starting safety spot.

“Myles should really have a huge year for us,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “He’s a long, 6-foot-2-and-a-half, 215-pound safety that will hit you and that can roam the field really well. We really look for him to take off this year.”

Stewart is a lock at starting cornerback after flirting with entering the NFL Draft. After a 66-tackle, 11 pass-breakup season, he could’ve gone in the third or fourth round and fulfilled what he called “a childhood dream.” But he stayed — and his team’s lack of picks was the biggest factor.

“I didn’t want to end my college career after zero interceptions,” he said. “I decided I wanted to come back and end on a bang — make people remember who I am.”

Hard hitter and fellow senior Donnie Miles will take the safety spot beside Dorn. As for a second corner, there’s no clear answer. Four-star recruit Tre Shaw could definitely play his way into the spot early on. There are plenty of other options for starting or rotational spots in Corey Bell Jr., Patrice Rene and K.J. Sails.

The Tar Heels need as much help as they can get, especially early on in the season. And if a hungry secondary can turn deflections and drops into catches, turnovers and maybe even some points, the team will get just that.


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