Sophomore cornerback Tony Grimes was a five-star recruit out of Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with scholarships from the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and nearly every other college powerhouse you can think of.
Coming out of high school with as much hype as he had, one would think he’d make an instant impact.
But his path to stardom wasn’t clear-cut.
'Just sit tight'
Grimes entered the North Carolina program fresh off his junior year of high school, weighing in at a light 170 pounds.
Due to COVID-19, he did not have summer meetings with the team to help him adjust to college football and the UNC system.
To make matters worse, he had to face two now-NFL players in daily practices — Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.
One day, he told his dad, Deon Glover, that he thought he needed to redshirt.
"Redshirt?" Glover told his son that day. "That’s not a part of the plan, son."
“He was doing better than he thought he was,” Glover said. “He had to catch up, he had to get used to the speed of the game and that was my conversation with him — just sit tight.”
Grimes even discussed the possibility of sitting out a year with others on the coaching staff before ultimately being convinced otherwise.
“He went to (cornerbacks) coach Dré (Bly) and he told him he wanted to redshirt," Glover said. "Coach Dré felt the same way I felt: ‘You’re good; just keep working; overcome this mental hurdle and you’ll be fine.’”
Grimes kept working on his craft, every week saying, "I’m ready to play."
The start of the season came against Syracuse, and although he didn’t start, he registered a tackle in the game. Grimes didn’t register another stat until nearly a month and a half later against N.C. State where he had two tackles.
Coming out of high school where Grimes was always a starter and a star on the team, not getting a lot of playing time and having to come off the bench led to him getting down on himself.
“I had to realize it’s a process, and when your time comes, make the best of it,” Grimes said. “At first it was difficult, but then I started thinking and started realizing when your time comes, your time will come.”
'I can play this game'
Grimes kept grinding, waiting for his chance to prove to the coaching staff that he belonged on the field at the first blow of the whistle.
Fast forward to Nov. 14, 2020.
North Carolina was facing Wake Forest, and although the offense was putting points on the board, the UNC defense could not stop the Demon Deacon offense. With the Tar Heels down 35-24 at the end of the first half, something had to change.
Enter Tony Grimes.
North Carolina co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman inserted the young cornerback into the game, and Grimes didn’t let him down. He helped the UNC defense hold Wake Forest to only 18 points in the second half, registering two tackles in the process. That, combined with the offensive magic that the Tar Heels possessed, led to UNC taking the game, 59-53.
“Honestly, when I got into the game, it was nervousness all throughout my body,” Grimes said. “It was the second play, and I got a pass deflection, and when I got that, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can play this game.’”
From there on out, Grimes was a starter on defense. To put it in his own words, his time came, and he made the best of it.
He registered two tackles and a pass breakup two weeks later against Notre Dame, and a week later, he recorded a tackle and a QB hit against Western Carolina. He hadn’t shown the full extent of his potential, though.
In the Miami game, he did just that.
Late in the third quarter on a deep pass by Miami quarterback D’Eriq King, Grimes ripped the ball out of a Miami receiver’s hands and got the first interception of his college career.
However, his best performance had still yet to come. Almost a month later in the same stadium, he made sure his name was known by college football fans across the country.
'He’s going to be something special'
With the Tar Heels finishing 8-3 — and Clemson and then-ACC school Notre Dame both making the College Football Playoff — the ACC’s berth in the Orange Bowl went to the next highest team: North Carolina.
With UNC in a New Year’s Six Bowl and playing against a Texas A&M team who many thought should be in the playoffs, Grimes made the most of his opportunity.
Again, in the third quarter of a game, Grimes made a key play. Coming off a blitz on third and three, he sacked Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond, giving the ball back to the Tar Heels in a close game.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also registered three tackles, including a tackle for loss, and two pass breakups. Despite the loss, Grimes was unfazed by the bright lights, which is not a common trait many first-years possess.
“That game hit me differently," Grimes said. "I really think that game put me on the map as someone who knows the game of football and 'he can really play; he’s going to be something special.' After that game, it got in my head that I gotta go crazy and I have to come back as someone people have to watch out for.”
’Let my game do the talking’
After Grimes' impressive Orange Bowl performance, college analysts took notice. As a result, his name is now being floated around in talks for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top cornerback in the country. ESPN also rated him as the 80th-best player coming into the 2021 season.
Don’t tell Grimes that, though. His sights aren't set on individual awards.
“At the end of the day, if I’m not working or if I’m not grinding or if I’m not being the best player I can be, the accolades are going to be gone," Grimes said. "So I have to let my game do the talking.”
In addition to accumulating accolades, he’s accumulating weight — gaining over 25 pounds since the beginning of last season. Grimes is now just under 200 pounds and stronger than ever.
“When he got here, he was pretty skinny, kind of frail-looking, and you see him lately — he looks like a college football player now,” Bateman said. “Every week, you look at him and you think, ‘Is he getting bigger? Is he getting taller?’”
As for goals for this season for the team, Grimes was straight to the point.
“As a team, we gotta go get that natty," he said.
Tony Grimes came into Chapel Hill weighing just 170 pounds, thinking he needed to redshirt and didn’t even start until the second half of UNC’s ninth game.
Now, Grimes is on the verge of becoming a star in college football and is helping lead the Tar Heels into their 2021 campaign.
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