Entering this season, the North Carolina football team had a blank space on the defensive depth chart.
In the secondary, M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence are two of the best corners in the ACC, if not the country. But UNC also heavily utilizes its nickel defense — which features five defensive backs — and questions about the fifth spot in the secondary left an opportunity for someone to take hold of that role.
Three games into the season, the Tar Heels appear to have found their answer: first-year cornerback Patrice Rene.
Rene was a late addition to UNC’s 2016 recruiting class and arrived on campus in June. Most first-years that enroll in the summer need time to learn the playbook, and even just adjust to college life, before they get a chance to see the field.
“It was very apparent early in the summer — the way he came in, the way he worked, the way he grinded — that he was going to have a different mindset than maybe a lot of other young guys,” said Charlton Warren, UNC's defensive backs coach.
“He came in with a lot of confidence, and just his sheer size gives him an advantage over a lot of guys.”
Rene's play impressed Lawrence, who has seen his fellow cornerback develop from the moment he joined the team.
“I think his confidence is getting a lot better,” Lawrence said. “I think that he’s getting a lot calmer in games. It’s allowed him to start to get the speed of the game, and I think he’s going to be big down the stretch for us.”
Rene has the advantage of learning from Lawrence and Stewart, two upperclass players who could both be in the mix for All-ACC awards this season. He says they have both helped him develop his intangibles and become more composed.
“Those two guys, they are great,” Rene said. “They are like big brothers to me. Since I came in, they’ve taken me under their wing and they’ve taught me a lot of things.
“Every time in practice, if I’m doing something wrong or there’s something I could be doing better, they will stop me and pull me aside and tell me what I need to work on. So it made me better, and I really appreciate them for that.”
When asked about Rene’s ceiling, Warren says he hopes the first-year doesn’t have one. After watching Rene's unique combination of size and speed, Warren recognizes he has the opportunity to become a special player for the Tar Heels.
“I think he is just scratching the surface of what kind of player he’s going to be four games from now, eight games from now, two years from now,” Warren said. “It’s going to be very exciting to watch him progress over the next couple years.”
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