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Saturday January 22nd

COLUMN: K.J Sails' actions stem from his love of the game

<p>Cornerback K.J. Sails (9) breaks up a pass intended for Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (6) on Oct. 7 in Kenan Memorial Stadium.</p>
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Cornerback K.J. Sails (9) breaks up a pass intended for Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (6) on Oct. 7 in Kenan Memorial Stadium.

On Saturday, K.J. Sails became a hot topic.

As North Carolina’s 59-7 loss to Virginia Tech came to an end, fans took to Twitter and voiced their frustrations with the sophomore cornerback. He had jawed with Virginia Tech’s wide receivers all game, and he had demonstratively celebrated everything positive the UNC defense did — be that a pass breakup, of which he had three, or a teammate’s tackle for loss or an incomplete pass.

Some chided Sails for celebrating plays he had no part of. Others were angry with him for talking without backing it up with his play, or doing so when he team trailed by 52 points.

To me, this logic is flawed. Sails is obviously a player who loves the game of football. And in early October, he proudly confirmed to reporters that his energy is a reflection of that.

“It’s part of who I am,” he said. “It comes out naturally. That’s just how I’ve been my whole life, personality-wise.”

He added that he feeds off others’ energy, so he tries to provide that same passion for his teammates. And although he politely declined to share the exact words he uses with opposing wideouts, he admitted without shame he was a huge trash talker.

“I can’t hide behind this small body, so I’m going to get after you,” he explained. “I think I’m the biggest guy on the defense.”

Of course, this style of play opens up Sails to criticism. After Virginia Tech scored a first-quarter touchdown on Saturday, its student section chanted “No. 9! No. 9!” at the 5-foot-11, 175-pound cornerback. And he’s rubbed numerous wide receivers the wrong way this season. That’s all part of it.

“I know y’all ain’t ever see a D O G before….” Sails tweeted at one critic after the game, “oh and have you ever been there before ? hell nah so sit back and hush for me.”

This mindset — one of relentlessness and physicality, regardless of individual play or the game’s score — is a necessary one for a cornerback to have. It’s one of the hardest positions in football to play. And at the collegiate level, wider hashmarks and first-down clock stoppages don’t do a defense any favors.

Sails makes mistakes. He’s not the best cornerback on his team. And, yes, his team is 1-7. That shouldn’t change his attitude, though. This is an athlete playing the sport he loves, and if he wants to show his emotions this way, so be it.

Some of the most successful NFL cornerbacks in recent years — think Richard Sherman, Josh Norman and Aqib Talib — have used the same play style. When they talked trash, they were praised. The same went for NBA legends like Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Kevin Garnett.

Case in point: Sails should be commended for his passion in the midst of UNC’s worst start since 2006. On a day when many accused North Carolina players of giving up, he didn’t.

And, ultimately, K.J Sails plays for himself and his team — not for the satisfaction of others.

@chapelfowler

sports@dailytarheel.com

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