Two of them reside in the North Carolina football team’s secondary — junior cornerback Des Lawrence and sophomore cornerback M.J. Stewart.
In victories over Pittsburgh and Duke, Stewart and Lawrence have combined for 11 pass break-ups. As a team, the Tar Heels lead the ACC with 38 passes defended and are tied for third in interceptions with 11.
Lawrence, who has defended 11 passes this season, said the key for the players in the secondary has been getting their hands on receivers early and timing the arrival of the ball.
“No matter who the receiver is, they don’t really like being touched at the line all the time,” Lawrence said. “Even the most physical receivers hate it. We just try to find an edge, especially in the ACC because there are a lot of good receivers.”
The Tar Heels are allowing 159.4 passing yards per game, tied for the third fewest in the nation. The longest pass play against North Carolina’s secondary this season has been 40 yards — which is the second shortest in the country.
Defensive backs coach Charlton Warren said the secondary has shown attention to detail when it comes to determining receivers’ routes before the snap.
“I think those guys know what to expect on the play a little bit before it happens,” Warren said.
“And I think as a (defensive back), when you have that film study, you can say ‘OK, based on that formation and split, I’m expecting this route.’ And then when it pans out, you have a little bit of a jump.”
But Lawrence and Stewart both agree that added physicality creates a thin line between tight defense and pass interference or holding penalties.
Lawrence said that in today’s game, most of the calls are in the offense’s favor. For defensive backs, it’s about maintaining a comfort zone. If the defender doesn’t feel comfortable turning his head around, than he needs to make sure not to run into the receiver.
Stewart echoed Lawrence’s sentiments.
“We always talk about playing the ball and getting your head around,” Stewart said. “That’s basically the line right there. There are some things you can do to cheat, but not get caught. You have to make it not obvious.”
Even though UNC’s secondary is highly ranked, Warren doesn’t believe quarterbacks have any fear when prepping for the Tar Heels. Regardless, it’s the defense’s responsibility to disrupt the offense’s rhythm.
“Most teams are going to come in here and do what they do,” Warren said. “And it’s really for us to go in there, react and make plays.
“Great quarterbacks are going to throw the ball, and it is our job to do as much as we can to defend the pass. And that starts with fundamentals and technique.”