Cornerback rotation eager to emerge

North Carolina's cornerbacks rotation has undergone a complete facelift over the past year, with four-year starter Jabari Price departed and Tim Scott moved to safety for his upcoming senior season.
Price and Scott were UNC's starters at the two cornerback spots for much of the last three years, and on paper most college teams losing both of their starting cornerbacks heading into a new season would be coming into training camp in a position of weakness, even if Scott didn't leave as much as relocate.
On the surface, some might think that Scott's move to safety was indicative of UNC's trouble defending the deep ball and its overall depth at the safety position heading into the 2014 season, but those closely following the team know that it's also the result of rising sophomores Desmond Lawrence and Brian Walker winning the starting jobs at the two respective cornerback spots.
With Scott heading into his senior season as the undisputed leader of the UNC secondary, it just made good sense to move the Virginia native back into the safeties group to make room for Lawrence and Walker, a pair of Charlotte natives, in the starting lineup.
"I believe we do (have talent at cornerback) and I think that's why Vic (Koenning) was comfortable moving Tim (Scott)," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora.
"If you're going to take him and move him from one spot to another, you better have some guys that can go and play because he (Scott) is the only one that had any experience out of all of them."
Both Walker and Lawrence emerged last season as newcomers to the UNC roster and they each made significant early impacts.
Lawrence came back from a knee injury suffered early in training camp to record 11 tackles and a tackle for loss in eight games, while Walker played in all 13 contests and was starting by season's end, recording 21 tackles (18 solo), seven pass deflections, six pass breakups, and a key interception in the win over N.C. State in Raleigh.
"Brian Walker and Des Lawrence have really done a nice job (settling into the lineup)," said Fedora. "And then you throw in M.J. and I think Vic feels very comfortable back there with those guys."
The 'M.J.' Fedora was referring to is freshman M.J. Stewart, who came on strong this spring as a January enrollee and made his case as an immediate contributor as the likely primary backup behind Lawrence and Walker.
"M.J. has been a guy that almost daily we've talked about as a staff as a guy that's making plays," said Fedora. "I would say right now that M.J. is definitely in the rotation. He can play boundary corner or field corner. I mean, he's learning both. And he's really made some plays for us. He really had a great spring."
UNC's other primary backup options at cornerback are Alex Dixon, a rising junior who recorded ten tackles, one pass breakup and one pass deflection in 2013, and T.J. Jiles, also a rising junior who played in 11 games last fall and recorded nine tackles.
Dixon and Jiles are seasoned veterans now with 47 combined games' worth of experience between them over the past two seasons, so the Tar Heels should feel confident that between them and Stewart, they will have quality depth at the two cornerback spots should Lawrence and/or Walker get injured or simply need a breather at a key moment in a game.
"Alex made plays (in the Spring Game), so you've got some guys now that I think (defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Dan) Disch feels very comfortable rolling in, and you don't have to worry about them when you stick them out there, you know. And so you can give guys some blow," said Fedora.
Along with the ability to give Walker and Lawrence rest in games comes the natural competition that exists each day in training camp and practice with hungry guys like Stewart, Jiles, and Dixon each wishing to elevate their own playing time.
In short, Jiles, Dixon and Stewart are all three coming into training camp fully confident that they can challenge for starting jobs with Lawrence and Walker, and that day-to-day competition should only make the five of them better over the long haul.
"You've got some competition now, and you've got guys competing, so that's making each one of them better," Fedora replied. "You can't take a lazy step. You can't. If you don't feel like going hard, it doesn't matter. You better or somebody is going to take your job. At that position particularly we're starting to build a little bit of depth in the program."
Coming off a 2013 season in which UNC allowed better than 220 yards through the air per game---ranking sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference---the UNC coaches can only hope that this quintet of Tar Heel cornerbacks are ready to go come August 1, when training camp commences in Chapel Hill.