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Tuesday October 4th

Analysis: UNC football's cornerbacks unit mixes young talent, veteran experience

Players celebrate sophomore defensive back Trey Morrison's (4) interception during a game against NC State University on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Buy Photos Players celebrate sophomore defensive back Trey Morrison's (4) interception during a game against NC State University on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

Led by upperclassmen Patrice Rene, Trey Morrison and Myles Wolfolk, the North Carolina football team's defensive back unit is looking to make a resurgence in the coming season. Injuries were the major story for the defensive backs last year, as Rene, Morrison, Wolfolk and Auburn transfer Cam’Ron Kelly all missed time due to injury.

The injuries to cornerbacks Morrison and Rene spurred the development of first-year Storm Duck, who started nine games for the Tar Heels. Pro Football Focus graded Duck as the second-highest performer on the UNC defense, following departed defensive lineman Aaron Crawford. Thrust into a larger-than-expected role, Duck recorded 37 total tackles, two tackles for a loss, two interceptions and seven defended passes. With Rene, Duck and Clemson transfer Kyler McMichael, the cornerback position should be a strong one for the Tar Heels this year. 

Morrison, a junior, is one of the most experienced players on the roster, having started 19 games so far in his collegiate career. During his first year, he started 10 games at nickelback, but switched to cornerback last season due to the injuries. This offseason, Morrison switched back to nickelback, where he will likely start against Syracuse. Last year, he recorded 31 total tackles, 10th on the team, despite missing two games. He also had 1.5 tackles for loss, one touchdown and five passes defended. Morrison could face competition for his spot from first-year Ja'Qurious Conley, a former four-star recruit and the fifth ranked player in North Carolina in the class of 2020 according to 247Sports. 

Wolfolk leads a strong but shallow safety group, as Myles Dorn graduated after starting for the last three years. In his time last year, Wolfolk recorded 25 total tackles, three passes defended, and led the Tar Heels in interceptions with three. Kelly, who was a four-star recruit out of high school, who was able to play right away after transfering from Auburn before his first game, played in five games for UNC last year before suffering an injury. During his time, he was able to record seven total tackles. These two will likely get the start at safety when the season kicks off on Sept. 12. 

Despite three players in the secondary — D.J. Ford, Javon Terry and Bryce Watts — opting out of the season, UNC's mix of veteran and young talent should serve it well in 2020. 

The cornerbacks are coached by Dré Bly, who was an All-American cornerback while at UNC in the late 1990s. Following his standout career in Chapel Hill, Bly played 11 seasons in the NFL, where he made the Pro Bowl twice. The safeties are coached by co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. Bateman is a 23-year coaching veteran who drew praise last season for the team’s defensive improvement from 13th in the ACC in points per game allowed in 2018 to fourth in 2019, despite injuries.

Although Bly is just in his second year of collegiate coaching, his former stardom has helped him bring in several highly rated recruits and transfers. Most notably, Bly was instrumental in bringing in first-year Tony Grimes. Grimes, the No. 1 cornerback recruit of the 2021 class, reclassified to the 2020 class following his commitment in late June and will be on the roster this fall. He is UNC’s fifth-highest ranked recruit all-time. Grimes’s immense talent will likely help him to find the field this season, but he is not expected to start initially. 

@michaelmearess

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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