Two seasons ago was a low point for the position group. In 2014, the Tar Heels ranked 101st out of 125 Division-I teams with an average of 257.4 passing yards per game. This was one of the major reasons why North Carolina gave up a staggering 39 points per game on the year.
But in 2015, the secondary turned things around — thanks to the emergence of cornerbacks Lawrence and M.J. Stewart.
The pair helped UNC climb into the top 20 nationally in interceptions, passing yards allowed and opponent passing efficiency.
Now, that level of play has become a new norm for the group — one it fully intends to live up to in 2016.
“We basically set a new standard for Carolina defense,” Stewart said.
“I mean, keeping people out of the red zone, keeping people from scoring — that’s become our new standard. And so now, instead of doing it, we expect it.”
But despite the confidence within the group, national media have been hesitant to praise the Tar Heel secondary this offseason.
Aside from Lawrence earning first team All-ACC honors earlier this summer, the names of North Carolina corners and safeties have been left off most preseason teams and award watch lists.
“The Rude Boys” are using the lack of notoriety as bulletin board material ahead of the upcoming season.
“I just think that our biggest thing is to carry a chip on our shoulder,” Lawrence said. “And I think it allows us — it allows Donnie (Miles) to get over 120 tackles in a season, it allows M.J. to get four picks, it allows me to do the same to get as many PBUs and tackles. So it just keeps us competitive.”
Each member of the secondary’s starting quartet brings his own skills to the table.
Lawrence excels at blanketing receivers and tackling in the open field. Stewart uses his athleticism to make plays. Donnie Miles is a force in the run game. And Dominquie Green — perhaps the most overlooked of the unit — has produced consistently when called upon.
But the one thing the foursome share is a desire to be better. They know what it took to get this far, and they know what it will take to continue to hone their craft.
Now they just have to get the rest of the unit on board.
“Nobody’s off the hook. Everybody, like we say, we gotta be rude,” Miles said. “We gotta live by that motto of being rude, and that’s being disciplined. That’s being sound in our technique. That’s doing our job, and that’s making plays and being competitive.”
North Carolina will kick off its season against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Sept. 3 in Atlanta. So far, there hasn’t been much belief that the Tar Heels can keep up with an SEC power, let alone win the ball game.
But that’s just what UNC, namely the secondary, wants to hear.
“Somebody told me that they expected the score to be 40-13 Georgia,” Stewart said. “That’s a total blow to our defense. They basically told us we’re not going to show up. And we love that.”
“I get joy when I hear that, because people just sleep on us. And that’s what I like, because we’ll wake you up sooner or later.”