To get an idea of the four starters in North Carolina’s defensive backfield, all you need to do is ask them about each other.
Here’s free safety Myles Dorn on K.J. Sails, the team’s top cornerback: “He’s just a nasty, in-your-face type of guy. I kind of feel like that’s what makes him good — I mean, he’s not the biggest, not the fastest, not the strongest. But he has that heart.”
Here’s Sails on Dorn and J.K. Britt, UNC’s two starting safeties: “Man, with those guys back there, I don’t really worry about much … they’re going to let you know what it is and what it’s not.”
And here’s Britt, a strong safety, on Dorn: “Me and Myles? It’s a good relationship, man. He kind of controls the air, and I like to control down low.”
It even extends to Patrice Rene, who isn’t penciled in at the No. 2 cornerback spot, but is the clear frontrunner. Sails emphasizes that Rene’s confidence “is out the roof right now — he’s playing great.”
Britt is a senior; Sails, Dorn and Rene are all juniors. Assuming that starting lineup holds, the four will enter UNC’s season opener at California with a combined 97 games of experience and 37 starts.
It’s the reps of these four, and the relationships between them, that have inspired confidence in a program looking to start anew after a 3-9 season in 2017. Among their supporters is their head coach, Larry Fedora.
“Those guys have been out there a bunch — I feel good about them,” Fedora said on Wednesday, in his last interview of the preseason. “We don’t have that alpha dog (like) M.J. Stewart back there, who has been killing it. But those guys, as a unit, have been doing a really good job.”
As a team, UNC allowed 436.1 yards per game last season, tied for 98th among FBS programs. That was a combination of an abysmal run defense (213 yards allowed per game, 112th in the nation) and a mediocre pass defense (223.1 yards allowed per game, 63rd in the nation).
That statistic, although middle of the pack, was still a significant drop-off for the secondary. In 2016, the unit allowed just 180.8 passing yards and 0.8 touchdown passes per game — both first in the ACC — in an 8-5 year.
Too often last season, the Tar Heel defense was on the wrong side of a huge play. As reported by Greg Barnes of InsideCarolina, the team allowed 13 opponent plays of 50 yards or more. Nine of those went for touchdowns.
Plenty of those 2017 errors are still fresh on players’ minds. Dorn said the secondary has dedicated significant time to open-field tackling: when to give ground, when to close in, when to go for a big hit. For a player in his position, that’s crucial.
“At safety, you may not be the one that messed up, but you’re going to be the one chasing, and it’s going to look like you messed up,” he said. “So, you’ve got to make that play.”
“Last year it used to get under my skin a lot, because nobody knows the coverage you’re in, in the stands. They just know you’re the one back there … But, at the end of the day, they don’t know.”
Dorn isn’t the only player returning with a changed mindset. Britt is in his final year and determined to move past what he called a “season of hurt.”
Sophomore Myles Wolfolk will provide depth at the nickel (third corner) spot, along with first-years Bryson Richardson and Trey Morrison. Sophomore C.J. Cotman will get reps at outside corner. But, above all else, it’s up to UNC’s four veteran defensive backs to lead a group hoping to rebound.
“I’ll do anything to win, and I feel like we’re going to win,” Dorn said. “That’s the difference. Nobody is worried about individual stats, individual goals. As a unit, that’s what makes our team different from last year to this year.”