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When true freshman Desmond Lawrence suffered a knee injury early in training camp last August, most everyone who knew about it, including Lawrence himself, must have figured that he would likely be redshirting the 2013 season.
Most everyone, that is, except his head coach.
That very afternoon, as Lawrence lay awaiting his immediate future, UNC head coach Larry Fedora called and reassured him that he wouldn't be forgotten.
And that call, perhaps more than any single other moment so far in Lawrence's time at North Carolina, has invigorated him to a point where he finds himself in position to assume a starting role at cornerback for UNC heading into his upcoming sophomore season.
"When I got hurt I was like, 'Yeah man, they're probably going to redshirt me,' but Coach Fedora told me on the phone that day, 'You're going to come back and be an impact to this team,'" Lawrence told Tar Heel Illustrated earlier this week. "So every day I tried to get better. And so when my time was called on special teams, or whenever I got my time on the defensive side of the ball, I just tried to make a play. And I think all that just really prepared me for this year."
Lawrence made it back to play in eight games last fall, serving on special teams and as a backup cornerback. He recorded 11 total tackles (eight solo) and one tackle for loss, giving himself some valuable experience heading into this spring, where starting jobs are there for the taking at both cornerback spots with Jabari Price's offseason departure and the move of Tim Scott to safety.
"I think those reps last year really helped. I'm not just someone out there now that didn't really get reps, or is shellshocked," Lawrence told us. "I know what's going to happen, and I pick up on certain things better than I would have last year. So I think those reps really helped, and I think I'm more prepared this year. It's good."
"I've just come out here and tried to get better each and every day," Lawrence added about the spring season. "We've had a great spring so far---well, it's kind of over now---but it's just been a great time on the defensive side of the ball. We're just going out there trying to make plays," he added.
Heading into the final hours of the spring season, it appears that Lawrence and his fellow classmate and Charlotte native Brian Walker are setting themselves up to be Carolina's two starting cornerbacks heading into the fall.
Lawrence and Walker have been friends for several years, going back to their days as highly sought-after recruits, and they arrived in Chapel Hill together last year with mutual sights set on making their way onto the field and staying there.
"Me and Brian, we're both guys from Charlotte and we've known each other for quite some time now," Lawrence said. "So I think we have a certain swagger, confidence, about ourselves that we can go out there and get it done even though we're young. It's good."
Like Walker, who told THI in an interview earlier this spring about how the Tar Heel secondary has a sense of something to prove this coming season, Lawrence suggested that anybody sleeping on the UNC defensive backfield because there's three sophomores in the current projected starting lineup could be in for a rude awakening.
"That's been the talk that we're young, and Tim is the only experienced one. And he's playing safety, so that's new for him. But we've just all come together," Lawrence said.
"If we're going to do this, we're going to have to do it together. We're going to have to be confident in ourselves. And we've got other guys that are behind us like Jeff Battle, and behind me is M.J. Stewart. And we've got other guys like Sam Smiley that are really going to step up. So it's not going to be a drop-off in any sense. I think we'll be ready."
Lawrence, who says there's no recurring problems with last year's injured knee, is currently wearing a cast over his right forearm, but that won't stop him from playing in Saturday's Spring Game inside Kenan Stadium.
"The knee is fine. There's no worries about the knee."
"I didn't even know I had one," Lawrence joked about the cast. "I hurt it (the right arm) last week---just a freak accident going on a blocking drill with the receivers. A helmet hit my hand. It was something slight but major. So we just put a cast over it, and I told them I still wanted to play (Saturday). But I still feel like I'm pretty productive. It's nothing crazy."
From an individual standpoint, Lawrence has been focusing heavily in recent weeks on being where he needs to be at given points in a play, and in position to disrupt opposing wide receivers from making catches.
"(I'm focusing on) just breaking on routes better, recognizing route combinations, being in the right place at the right time, and also playing the ball. I really take pride in that. And getting the ball out. That's really what we have to do is DBs is not let them catch the ball. So when it's one-on-one in a big stage, with me and him (the opposing receiver), I've just got to get the ball out (of his hands)."
Coming off last season's late-season defensive success for UNC---of which Lawrence was a helpful contributor---Lawrence and the other UNC defenders have been looking to find a way to carry over the momentum of November and December into this spring's workouts.
"We were pretty dominant as far as defensively in the Belk Bowl, and we've really seen how fast this defense can be with the players that were on the team that we knew were coming back," Lawrence said. "We just really bought into that. Let's just get three or four guys to the ball at a time and really be scary for offenses. So I think that's what really helped us is seeing how fast we can be."
It was an enjoyable experience for Lawrence getting to play in front of friends and family at the recent scrimmage in Charlotte, and he's looking forward to doing his thing again on Saturday in what will be his first opportunity to step into the starting lineup as a Tar Heel in Kenan Stadium.
"It was big (getting to scrimmage in Charlotte). It was kind of like a high school game. We got off the bus and just played. I think that was really familiar to me," he said. "Of course I had my mom and dad and other family members out there. So you want to always make plays in front of them. I think it was just that ease being out there."
"It's pretty exciting (getting ready for Saturday's Spring Game), because I've never started in a game-type situation until this situation. So it's going to be really fun to go out and play in front of the fans and see what we can do," he continued.