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Monday December 5th

Analysis: UNC football's secondary aiming to stay healthy, step forward in 2022

<p>Junior defensive back Cam'Ron Kelly (9) receives the ball during the Tar Heels' football game at Kenan Stadium on Oct. 16 against Miami. UNC won 45-42.</p>
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Junior defensive back Cam'Ron Kelly (9) receives the ball during the Tar Heels' football game at Kenan Stadium on Oct. 16 against Miami. UNC won 45-42.

Headlined by four returning starters, the North Carolina football secondary is primed for a promising season.

With a combination of experience and talent, the secondary unit hopes to overcome last season’s shortcomings. Out of 130 FBS teams, UNC ranked 84th in passing yards allowed per game. The 2021 defense also allowed a staggering 13.22 yards per completion.

Despite the secondary’s underwhelming 2021 campaign, there is much to be excited about for the 2022 season. Junior cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Storm Duck have the potential to be a top-performing duo in the ACC, while senior Cam’Ron Kelly and junior Ja’Qurious Conley are a formidable safety tandem with meaningful game experience. 

Let’s take a deeper look into the names that will headline a talented secondary looking to break out with a strong 2022 season.

Tony Grimes

Since Grimes arrived in Chapel Hill, expectations have been high for the former five-star high school cornerback.

Grimes has sustained tremendous progress since being thrust into the starting lineup as a first-year in 2020. Over the past two seasons, he has risen to the occasion when called upon. Last season, Grimes started all 13 games for the Tar Heels and earned an All-ACC Honorable mention. He was tied for fifth in the ACC with nine pass breakups.

The preseason spotlight has been focused on Grimes with the expectation of continued success this upcoming fall. He was recently named a top-25 cornerback entering the 2022 college football season by Pro Football Focus. There is no question that Grimes is one of the most valuable assets to the Tar Heels' defense, and with more experience and a new defensive coaching staff, his production can increase even more.

Storm Duck

Consistency is the key when it comes to junior cornerback Duck. Since his true first-year season, Duck has struggled to stay on the field. He has played in just eight games in the past two years due to injury, but is a true difference maker when healthy. 

Duck finished the 2021 season with 16 tackles and one pass breakup in four games started. He also made a couple of stops against South Carolina in the Duke's Mayo Bowl.

If he can stay in the lineup this fall, Duck will pair with Grimes to give this North Carolina secondary two true number-one cornerbacks to anchor the pass defense.

Cam’Ron Kelly

Going into his senior season, Kelly is the leader of the Tar Heels’ safety group. Despite UNC’s weak 2021 secondary, Kelly was a bright spot who earned All-ACC Third Team honors. 

Kelly appeared in all 13 games last year and started in nine of them. He ranked third on the team with 69 tackles and tied for first in the ACC with four interceptions. The Tar Heels will need Kelly to sustain success if they hope to improve their deficiencies in their pass defense.  

Ja’Qurious Conley

Junior safety Conley’s 2021 season was cut short after suffering a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff against Wofford last fall. Before his injury though, Conley made his presence felt on the field.

Conley started 10 games for the Tar Heels last season and recorded 46 tackles, two interceptions, two tackles for loss and one fumble recovery. Headlined by his hard-nosed style, Conley made plenty of game-altering plays.

Conley pairs well with Kelly to form an experienced safety group who will look to overcome last season’s flaws. 

When healthy, this North Carolina defensive back unit has the potential to be one of the better position groups in the ACC. These Tar Heels will need to rely on their talent and experience in the secondary to help alleviate a young offense. 

@austinlblake  

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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