When junior defensive back Storm Duck took the podium in a press conference on Aug. 18, he was barraged with an array of questions surrounding his health.
It’s no surprise that his press appearance began this way. After a breakout first-year season in 2019, the past two years saw Duck battle injuries and miss significant playing time at UNC.
This season, Duck is ready to put that period of his college career behind him.
With a new number — opting for 3 instead of 29 — and a new mentality, Duck is hoping to return to the field as someone his teammates can count on.
“Over the last two years, it’s been hard mentally, but I’m over that, over that hump now,” Duck said. “And I’m feeling mentally a hundred percent confident, physically a hundred percent confident.”
In 2020, Duck looked to return to the field as the same dominant force that finished second on the team with five pass break-ups and two interceptions as a first-year.
Instead, he started just two games before missing the final 10 contests of the season due to a lower-body injury suffered in early October against Boston College.
An upper-body injury caused Duck to delay his start to training camp in 2021. Though Duck told reporters he was “feeling good” at roughly the same time last year, he didn't play in the first two games of the season and missed all of October before returning against Wake Forest on Nov. 11.
Duck's defensive production ended up being nowhere near his stellar first season, as he appeared in only five games, recording 16 tackles — less than half of the 37 he registered in 2019 — and no interceptions. He singled out the beginning of last year and the games he missed during that period as the most mentally difficult part of his journey over the past two seasons.
“That first half right there definitely was hard on me,” Duck said. “Then after that, just staying positive. The main thing is just staying positive and not getting down and not letting it affect me and not letting it affect how I added things like that. Because the main thing is it’s a new opportunity.”
While he was sidelined for the majority of UNC's games last fall, Duck took on a much larger role off the field.
In his training camp press conference on Aug. 17, redshirt first-year Dontae Balfour pointed to Duck as one of the "alphas" in the defensive back room. He said Duck was one of the leaders that took him under their wing last season to help him make the transition from high school to college.
"(Ladaeson) Hollins, Storm Duck and Tony (Grimes), I can always lean on them," Balfour said. "They’ve been good mentors to me and telling me things that will help me in the long run."
Duck also noted his increased leadership presence and "being a little more vocal" as one of the differences in his role on the team over the past year.
"(I'm) trying to be more vocal on the field, " he said. "If they need any help, things like that, just being the guy they can go to. Just talking to them, and if they need help with something, just ask me."
After being out for "a bit" this preseason, Duck reports he hasn't missed a practice and is once again feeling "really good". The junior has made the most of fall camp this time around — putting in extra work after practice, refining his routine, watching film and learning new schemes and route concepts.
Still, despite putting his health issues momentarily in the rearview, it looks like Duck has his work cut out for him this fall. Head coach Mack Brown confirmed on Monday that Balfour will likely start over Duck because he’s "had every snap."
Brown stated that in the decision to start Balfour over Duck, the staff is "sending a message that if you are working every day and staying healthy, you have a better chance to get out there before others."
“Storm’s a very talented guy,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said on Monday. “He’s got the physical and mental makeup to be a really, really good defensive back. Obviously, the health issue has been the reason."
Despite questions about how he will fit in with the rest of the defensive backs, Duck has a new opportunity to once again become a defensive presence for UNC, whether that's as a second-string cornerback or star.
The question remains, as Brown bluntly put it on Monday — "Can he stay healthy?"
"Hopefully he can," Brown said. "If he can we're a better team, because we need him on the field."
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