With junior cornerback Storm Duck returning from a season-ending injury and sophomore cornerback Tony Grimes expected to step into a bigger role following a stretch of impressive performances late last fall, North Carolina's secondary is expected to be one of the team's most solid units throughout the 2021 season.
While Duck and Grimes are expected to match up against receivers on the outside, sophomore Ja’Qurious Conley and senior Trey Morrison are two safeties that will likely man the back end of the UNC secondary.
Last year, the Tar Heels finished tenth in the ACC in interceptions with eight, while allowing an average of 246.7 yards per game through the air. But as the season went along, the defense began to tighten its screws and held potent offenses such as Miami and Texas A&M to modest passing outputs, indicating a potential second jump in production could occur this fall.
After being thrust into the starting lineup as a true first-year for the Tar Heels' last four games of the 2020 season, it didn't take long for Grimes to showcase why he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school.
In the team's first major bowl appearance since the 1949 season, he flashed his potential as one of the ACC’s top young talents by allowing zero completions over 61 snaps and recording two pass breakups and a sack against Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl. Media members took notice of Grimes’ strong play and voted him onto the 2021 Preseason All-ACC team.
Although his overall stats were modest — 14 tackles, four pass breakups and one interception — Grimes emerged as the team's top corner and delivered when called upon. This fall, his ability to shut down opposing teams’ top receivers will be a valuable asset when the Tar Heels play some of the ACC’s top passing offenses
After a promising campaign as a first-year in 2019, Duck appeared ready to be one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks last season before suffering a season-ending lower-body injury against Boston College. Now, Duck is healthy and on track to start at the cornerback position opposite of Grimes.
In his first season, Duck started in 9 of thirteen games and tallied 37 tackles, five pass breakups and two interceptions.
Duck’s return gives the Tar Heels two corners capable of covering the top receiver on the opposing team. This will not only help the secondary improve, but it’ll also have a trickle-down effect on the entire defense by giving the UNC pass rushers more time to get to the opposing quarterback.
Conley flashed his ability to be a starter on defense in limited opportunities last season. His lone start came in the Orange Bowl, where he recorded five tackles against the Aggies. Against Miami, he recorded six tackles — two coming for loss — and picked up a sack.
While the rest of the projected starters in the secondary tend to rely on skill and finesse, Conley can use his strong 6-foot, 210-pound frame to set the tone and get physical with receivers. Conley’s strength and physicality will be a valuable asset to the Tar Heels’ secondary and entire defense.
Senior Trey Morrison will likely play free safety and round out the Tar Heels’ starting secondary unit. In 12 starts last season, Morrison had 39 tackles, three pass breakups, one interception and one sack. His play during the season earned him honorable mention all-ACC honors.
After transferring from Clemson, junior Kyler McMichael had a solid sophomore campaign last season in which he started eight of the nine games he appeared in and made 26 tackles and broke up six passes.