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April 12, 2013It's been an interesting spring season for North Carolina's collection of cornerbacks and safeties, as several Tar Heel DBs have taken advantage of extra repetitions in the first and second rotations, while others have been shelved with various injuries.
"We've got a couple hurt guys," said rising senior cornerback Jabari Price, one of a core of UNC defensive backs, including Darien Rankin, Sam Smiley, T.J. Jiles, and Malik Simmons, who have missed some or all of spring workouts.
"When you have guys contributing and stepping up when guys are hurt like Rankin and Smiley, it feels natural. And I think that's what the secondary is feeling right now. I feel like this is our second nature, and we're really playing now," added fellow senior Tre Boston.
The Tar Heels statistically were an enigma in the secondary in 2012, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with 16 interceptions in a three-way tie with Georgia Tech and N.C. State, yet finishing eighth in the league in pass defense, giving up just under 250 passing yards per game (246.9 to be exact), including some huge individual games to people like Wake Forest's Tanner Price, N.C. State's Mike Glennon, and Duke's Sean Renfree, among others.
Clearly this Carolina secondary unit needs to get way better in order to help the Tar Heels improve on last year's 8-4 overall mark, but without the steady presence of Price, a returning starter who hasn't conducted full-conduct drills or scrimmages all spring, as well as injuries to the others, it's been a revolving collection of players getting reps in practice this March and April.
"It's tough. Going against the spread (offense) all spring, you get tired a lot, but we've just got to suck it up and just play, because we know we'll be ready for the fall," said rising junior Tim Scott, one of the few UNC cornerbacks who has managed to stay healthy and practice all spring within the two-deep.
"I'm doing everything except the contact, 'live' thing. I'm doing one-on-ones. Seven-on-seven. I'm doing everything, (but) I'm just not doing everything as far as tackling. I'm fine," added Price. "I won't be playing in the Spring Game. But I'll be watching from the sideline. I definitely can't wait to come back after the spring."
Scott, Price, and Boston have taken it upon themselves as the defensive backs with the most seniority to lift this group up and cajole them to work hard in practice and perform with a high intensity level in scrimmages over the past four weeks.
"Me, Jabari, and Tre Boston mostly, we've just been mostly bringing in the defense. We've all been talking about what we need to do for season goals,and trying to make that ACC Championship Game and winning the Coastal (Division) again," Scott said.
"We've really just been together telling each other what we need to do on the field and off the field to get back there. Now that the coaches consider me an older guy in the secondary, so I've got to work on my leadership."
"We don't have just one leader. Everybody leads on this team. And when everybody does their assignment, that's what we do. We do our jobs and everything is good," added Boston. "But for myself, it's honestly about getting the guys on board, becoming a better leader for this team. If we get everybody on board, they're willing to follow. I've just got to make sure I lead the right way and keep them on the right path."
Scott, who is going into his third year as a starter for the Tar Heels, had an up-and-down sophomore season this past fall, recording 48 tackles (36 solo) and four interceptions, which he recorded against Elon, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech.
He even had 5.5 tackles for loss, including two in the season finale against Maryland, so Scott knows how to step up and defend the run as well.
Scott returned the interception against the Yellow Jackets 34 yards for a touchdown, though he and the rest of the UNC defenders struggled mightily that day holding back a relentless Georgia Tech offensive attack in a humbling 68-50 score that felt more like a Big Ten basketball game score-wise than an ACC football game.
"With defense, if you play with energy and intensity, that's what comes with it. If you play flat, that's when you're going to give up the big plays and the touchdowns," Scott said.
"It's a different ballgame (now that I'm a veteran)," Scott continued. "When you come in (as a younger player) and make those mistakes coaches give you a little leeway. Now when you make those mistakes, they're really going to get on you for it, because they know that you've been in the game so long so you should know what to do and not do. And I've been taking that pretty well with Coach (Dan) Disch, and I can take on the leadership role."
Scott would be the first to admit that this UNC secondary unit has to come along a great deal to avoid the type of embarrassing defensive performance that Georgia Tech was all about.
And in order to do that the Tar Heel coaches needed to get everything they could possibly squeeze out of an already-taxed group of players this spring in order to best prepare for the summer training camp.
"I've seen some improvement. We've still got a long way to go," said head coach Larry Fedora in a recent interview talking about the Tar Heel defensive backs.
At the cornerback position opposite Scott, there have been a number of players, including Simmons, Alex Dixon, and Terry Shankle, who have gotten first and second team reps in recent weeks.
With Simmons injured and not working in some recent practices, Shankle has had an opportunity to practice a lot with the starters and he's taken advantage. Although Price and Simmons will surely provide stiff competition come summer, Shankle has done all he can do to solidify his place in the two-deep for UNC at cornerback, and in Saturday's Spring Game he'll work alongside Scott with the first team unit.
The fifth-year senior Shankle, as well as Scott and Price, have the respect of Carolina's top wide receiver, who has had the daily prospect of taking these guys on one-on-one at different points in practice.
"'Shank,' or 'Terry' as I know him, and Tim (are the biggest challenges)," said Quinshad Davis when asked which UNC cornerbacks give him trouble. "You know Jabari (is tough as well but) he's hurt, so he's not really playing too hard. But yeah, Terry and Tim are always a challenge."
Coach Fedora knows that the Tar Heel cornerbacks have to get better, but's he's also smart enough to realize that this unit can be greatly aided if they get some help by their teammates up front along the UNC defensive line.
"A lot of times people, they blame the secondary. And if there's not pressure on the quarterback, you're not going to cover them all day," Fedora said. "They both work hand-in-hand. I mean, you've got to have pressure to be a good secondary. And you know, I don't care how talented you are. If you don't have pressure, you're going to have a hard time with today's receivers."
While Price hasn't been able to go at full strength this spring, he's been in position to get skill development with several lower-impact drills in practice, as well as getting mental reps when the team has been scrimmaging or engaged in a live team segment.
"They (the secondary) are looking good. I'm actually learning from them, watching them. So the good plays they make, I'm learning. And the bad plays I'm learning. So it's definitely a learning experience for myself," Price told us. "I'm definitely excited."
"We've got a good group of guys and good leaders on each side of the ball at each position, so I'm definitely looking forward to making a run with this thing. We're looking pretty good this spring, and hopefully we'll continue to get better (heading into training camp)."
Price was one of Carolina's team leaders in tackles a year ago with 76, though he missed the season finale against Maryland. He had one interception in the season-opening blowout of Elon, and recorded four tackles for loss.
He told us he's advanced his knowledge greatly over the offseason despite the physical limitations of his recovery.
"Individual areas, I feel like I know the defense a lot better. Just looking back on film from last season, I see a lot more mistakes (I made), and plays that I would have made and should have made that would have changed the game. And I kind of beat myself about it, but I don't want to have the same feeling after this season," Price said.
Price and his teammates credit defensive associated head coach Vic Koenning spending more focus on the secondary alongside Dan Disch this spring as helpful to the unit's overall development.
Koenning, working primarily with the UNC safeties, has been switching guys around at the free and strong safety positions in order to help establish a little more depth and give guys familiarity at both spots in case they have to go in and play.
"We're looking a whole lot better (in the secondary)," Price said. "I can say since Coach Koenning has came to the secondary that we've looked a whole lot better. I mean, there's missed assignments, but we're also making a lot more plays. But we definitely have a lot more work to do this spring."
"I feel like the safety position, they look a lot better. With Coach Koenning coaching those guys, they're flying around and making plays. So there's a lot of competition this spring to see who's going to play this fall," Price added.
"As a secondary, we all have to be familiar with each other and our secondaries. Our pros and our cons. So Koenning and Disch really wanted to get us used to that, so that way if anybody has to play in the game, we'll all know how each other plays," added Scott.
"Honestly, it's not so much a new staff anymore. I think we switched up a few coaches, but I like it," said Boston. "It's a good player-to-coach ratio when it comes to coaching our players and doing the right assignments and I think that's helping us right now. I like what the coaches are doing with us."
Boston had a solid season overall a year ago with 86 tackles (47 solo), as well as four interceptions, including that memorable 36-yard interception return to the end zone in Carolina's 37-13 takedown of Coastal Division rival Virginia on ESPN Thursday Night Football in November in Charlottesville.
While he's seen competition from Kameron Jackson and others this spring as the Tar Heel staff has looked to establish some depth behind him, Boston is the anchor at the free safety position for UNC heading into summer.
"Free safety, I've played free pretty much every year here. I think that's a spot that I pretty much fell in love with now. It's a spot that's so comfortable to me, and I just love playing it," Boston said. "The spring is going pretty good. I'm feeling a little older---it's my last year coming in---but I'm definitely having fun. The spring is going great for the defense and the offense."
It's still somewhat shocking to Boston that he's already a rising senior, but in knowing that, he's tried to embrace even more what these 15 spring practices meant and how important it was not to waste the chances to improve in recent weeks.
"I don't think it's really hit me so far (that I'm heading into my last year), and when you say that right there, my mind kind of boggles and it's definitely crazy. I'm going to definitely enjoy my last spring, and play my heart out in this last spring, because it's all I've got," he said.
Boston has been working closely with Smiley, his starting mate at the strong safety position, along with several others including Jackson, walk-ons Dominique Green and Jeff Battle, and redshirt freshman Clint Heaven for reps in practices and scrimmages.
"As a secondary, honestly, everybody is coming back. It's just get the playbook down pat. Make sure that everything becomes second nature to me. I definitely like to roam, so when I know what to do, that's exactly what I like to do. Get my feet all over the field and be able to pick and get interceptions running around everywhere," Boston said.
One safety who has made a strong impression on all his new teammates this spring is the true freshman Green, a walk-on from Laurinburg (N.C.) who is quickly proving he may be worthy of a scholarship before too long.
Green has spent the spring working in and out of the first and second unit, and heads into training camp with a solid chance of seeing action in the safety rotation.
He's particularly impressed his new collegiate teammates with his willingness to immerse himself into the defensive playbook and schemes.
"He's a baller," said Price of Green. "He came in here, walk on or not, the kid can play. The kid came here and learned the playbook, just ASAP, and he's making plays every day."
"Dominique Green, he came in a couple weeks ago just with the freshmen. He came in and went to the film room right away. He's learned the defense, and he knows it as good as us," added Scott.
"We've got a new Green. Green has been playing amazing for us as a freshman. You don't really see guys doing it that often," said Boston. "I remember my freshman year playing, but I don't think I was playing as fast and physical as he is right now, honestly."
A huge overall goal of the 2013 UNC secondary is to improve its amount of takeaways.
While 16 interceptions was good enough for a piece of the ACC season lead, the guys in the group feel like collectively they can do even better.
And they'd also like to include the number of fumbles they grab, as UNC's nine fumble recoveries last season ranked in the bottom half of the league.
"We can't win games without takeaways. So that's definitely an area where we want to improve at, improve the amount of takeaways we get per game," said Price. "I think we were like third or fourth in interceptions last season in the country. We want to be No. 1. We've got the talent. We've got the personnel. We've got everything. And we've got everyone back, so I feel we can definitely grow in that area."
"I've really got to work on my hands. I know I dropped a lot of picks last year that I could have gotten," added Scott. "I really wanted to work on my footwork, and my understanding of the defense. We kind of got it last year, being in the first year of the defense, but now we really need to get into the concepts and learn more about the offensive schemes, learning how our defense will help going against those schemes."
Another focus of course for the UNC secondary in addition to making some game-changing turnovers is limiting the big plays of the opposing offense.
And while it hasn't all been great this spring---UNC's defense gave up 80-plus yard plays to A.J. Blue and Romar Morris in the recent scrimmage in Charlotte---the defense did considerably better for the most part when they scrimmaged again last week in Kenan Stadium.
"We just came out with energy (in the Kenan scrimmage)," Scott said. "If you come out full-speed and just playing hard. You're going to make mistakes, but they won't be as many because you're going hard, hitting people and everything so that can really limit the big plays."
"I think the defense came out with a lot more intensity (in Chapel Hill). When we were in Charlotte, we really came out flat and gave up a lot of big plays. And we gave a lot of emphasis on containing the big plays and making sure we play hard---tap hats and have fun---and that's what we came out to do."
Dealing with Carolina's multi-purpose, fast-paced offense every day in practice is certainly no picnic.
But the UNC secondary, especially those seasoned veterans like Boston, Scott, and Price, should feel confident that if they can tame the beast in their own backyard, there's no reason they can't handle the offensive beasts around the Atlantic Coast Conference as well come fall.