“Some of those guys were thrown into the mix,” Withers said. “I think one thing that’s evident out in practice so far is that we’re going to be a good secondary.”
The unit will look to seniors Brown and safety Jonathan Smith to be leaders for the secondary.
Brown, who sat out all of last year and will sit out the first game of the 2011 season, brings the most experience as well as six career interceptions to the field.
Smith, who was also sidelined for the entire 2010 season, has embraced his chance to get back on the field and be a positive role model for younger defensive backs.
“He’s right now probably playing as good as anybody in the secondary,” Withers said. “And we expect him to lead.”
Smith worked on the practice squad to make the transition back to the games easier.
“I’ve seen a lot of football, been in a lot of situations, so that’s definitely helped a lot,” Smith said. “Also, because I was doing scout team for the whole year, I wasn’t just sitting out and completely off the field.”
Sophomore Tre Boston, who was moved from cornerback to safety this offseason, has slid back to cornerback to fill the injured Price’s slot.
Merletti, a proven special teams player for the Tar Heels, will start at safety to begin the season.
With so many shake-ups, the unit has had to work hard to get ready for the start of the season.
“The biggest thing that we’ve actually seen improvement in ourselves is just the chemistry,” Smith said. “Just getting back into the groove of things and keeping chemistry and communication with the younger guys.”
But despite the confidence Smith and Withers have displayed in the secondary, results still need to come on the field.
All four starters — Brown, Smith, Merletti and Boston — have just nine combined interceptions. But facing a Tar Heel offense that should be proficient in passing this year will undoubtedly help the secondary prepare for game day.
“We’ve got a good offensive passing system,” Withers said. “And if we can do well versus those offensive passes in practice, then I think we’ve got a chance to be really good on Saturdays.”
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