Last summer, Trey Morrison had no idea what role he’d play on the North Carolina football team.
The cornerback had arrived in Chapel Hill as a three-star recruit and the No. 80 overall player in the state of Georgia. But, as a true first-year, playing time appeared hard to come by. UNC’s cornerback group was filled with established upperclassmen: K.J. Sails, Patrice Rene, Corey Bell Jr.
“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t really know at all,” Morrison said on Thursday. “But I just kept working hard, and everything fell in place.”
Morrison’s play drew him rave reviews throughout camp — and earned him a start in UNC’s season opener. In his first career game, he made three tackles in a loss to California.
And that was only the beginning.
Morrison ended up playing in all 11 of UNC’s games, starting 10 at the nickelback (slot corner), position. He recorded 46 tackles, two sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and four pass breakups. Morrison’s play was a tangible bright spot for the Tar Heels in the midst of a 2-9 campaign, their worst since 2003.
“Man, he’s the best open-field tackler I’ve seen,” defensive end Tomon Fox said of Morrison. “Like, you cannot make him miss. That’s what really rubbed off on me. I like that we can count on him to go make a tackle when we need it, and he’s not going to get shook or anything like that.”
In 2019, Morrison, a rising sophomore, will have an even larger role. He has a new position coach in former UNC standout Dré Bly. A new co-defensive coordinator in Jay Bateman. And a new defensive scheme, Bateman’s hybrid 3-4, that will give him even more flexibility.
“The new scheme is real different,” Morrison said. “Playing nickel, I’m going to be everywhere on the field in coverage. I blitz way more … I like it a lot.”
As a first-year, Morrison finished sixth on the team in tackles — and most of his best games came as the season progressed. He had three straight games of six tackles against Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Virginia. In a home game against Western Carolina, he logged a career-high seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
It culminated with a fifth-place finish in the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Morrison will enter 2019 as one of North Carolina’s top defensive backs alongside Sails and safety Myles Dorn.
“Trey has got really good instincts,” head coach Mack Brown said. “He loves to play. Got a lot of spirit. He’s tough. He’s got very good hands. He dropped an interception today, which is unlike him. But I think he’s one of those guys who is just a really good football player because he can play in space.”
If the quotes of his teammates and coaches are any indication, Morrison’s sophomore season is already becoming a highly anticipated one. And on Thursday after practice, he added one more personal goal to what should be an interesting 2019 season.
“My second year, I feel like I need to be a bit more of a leader for my team,” he said. “Just helping everybody.”
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