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After seeing considerable action as a true freshman this past fall---including making two starts---cornerback Brian Walker heads into his sophomore year as a guy expected to be a key contributor to the North Carolina defense in 2014.
In an effort to best maximize its personnel and get the best players on the field all at one time, UNC has moved rising senior Tim Scott, a two-year starter at cornerback for the Tar Heels, to safety to join forces with Walker, Dominique Green and Desmond Lawrence, a trio of rising sophomores with tremendous individual talent, to comprise the current first-team secondary for the Tar Heels.
Walker and Lawrence, both out of Charlotte, came to Chapel Hill together in the Class of 2013 and set their sights immediately on those two starting cornerback spots, and they're closer than ever to reaching that lofty goal going into just their second season in college.
"That's exciting (playing alongside Lawrence)," Walker told Tar Heel Illustrated.
"We knew each other in high school. This is kind of a dream almost that we're both playing at the same time, both getting to start. We talk about that all the time."
"We're just trying to get better. That's our main thing. We're going to be here together for four years, so the sky is the limit with us. But this year should be our year knowing that we're both starting. So we'll just see what we can do, try to get better," he added.
Walker, a highly-regarded four-star recruit who UNC had to beat out several other ACC and SEC schools for, didn't expect to redshirt when he arrived in Chapel Hill last year, and by season's end he was a fixture in the Tar Heel secondary.
He finished his freshman season with 21 total tackles, including 18 solo tackles, as well as six pass breakups, seven pass deflections, and a key interception in UNC's victory over arch-rival N.C. State in Raleigh.
He started in UNC's triumph over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl in late December.
"It was good (getting early action last season)," Walker told us. "That gave me a lot of experience heading into this year. I definitely know what to expect. Big things for myself. I have high expectations for myself, just trying to get better and play a better game. That's the main thing, work on my technique. I expect big things for this team this year."
As it is for most all young players transitioning from high school to college, there was a few weeks of shock and awe for Walker last summer seeing the speed and precision it takes to be successful at the major college level.
But by the time the Tar Heels had its near miss against Georgia Tech in Atlanta in late September, Walker says he knew he could compete at this level.
"Georgia Tech game, that was pretty much the game that really helped me out. The whole atmosphere. That gave me confidence after that to pretty much move on from that and feel established at that position," he said.
Walker credits former Tar Heel cornerback Jabari Price---a guy who had to step into early action himself back when the NCAA starting coming down on UNC football back in 2010---for helping show him the ropes last fall and getting him up to speed so he would be in position to help replace him now.
"Guys like Jabari (Price), he really pushed me to be ready for whatever situation it was. "So that really helped me," Walker replied.
Walker admits that his mindset has changed quite a bit now that he knows he's going to be on the field and looked at as both a contributor and as a leader within the UNC defense.
"My mindset changed. I started to take it more seriously, be more focused towards it all," he said. "Now that it's time, starting time is now here, I'm embracing it and I'm looking forward to the season."
Walker is looking to add a little bit of weight this offseason while also refining his footwork and technique this spring in practice.
Regarded as an excellent one-on-one coverage corner, Walker wants to continue perfecting his back-pedal, flipping his hips to run with opposing receivers, and using his hands and body to make catching passes more difficult for his competition.
"The weight goal is 195 (pounds). I'm like 188 now. So I'm trying to get bigger and stronger. That was the main thing they (the coaches) talked about (in terms of offseason goals)," he said.
"Technique is the main thing I'm trying to work on (this spring in practice). You always have to try to perfect your technique. Footwork, man-to-man (coverage), that's the main thing I've been trying to work on. That's pretty much it."
Walker says he's definitely felt a transition this spring compared to this past summer, when he first arrived at training camp at UNC.
Then, as a newcomer to the Tar Heel roster, he was just trying to find his way.
But now, as a proven and reliable contributor for Carolina and a projected starter, he knows that there's more eyes on him, as well as more expectations from the coaches.
That's also the case for fellow sophomores Lawrence and Green.
"Yeah, I feel like we're sophomores," Walker said of himself, Lawrence, and Green. "Me, Green, and Des we're still trying to get our feet wet, still trying to understand the system."
"From how the defense is, the coaches treat us like sophomores---like we're the leaders of the group. Just from last year, we got to play a lot. So I think they (the UNC coaches), they look at us as older guys. It may not be by classification, but on the field we're older guys."
Scott, as the only senior in the starting rotation, is the clear leader of the group, and the other UNC defensive backs are looking to him as an example of how to work and how to prepare.
Walker, for one, feels that Scott's transition to safety is going to be relatively smooth. as it was late in the season when he first moved into the deep secondary.
It's an adjustment to come up and hit and make tackles in run support---which cornerbacks don't have to do as much---but nobody questions Scott's coverage abilities.
"He (Scott) looks good. I think it's different for him to come down and hit a lot more now, because corners, we don't have to hit that much, but I think he's adapting to that," Walker replied. "Coverage-wise, he can cover. I don't think anybody really questions that. He looks good to me at it (the safety position), so I think he'll be fine. He knows what to expect from certain teams, certain receivers, which helps us out."
While Scott provides some stability and experience in the deep secondary for UNC, there are plenty of people that could very well see Carolina's overall lack of experience at cornerback as a potential weakness heading into 2014 without taking into consideration that the Tar Heel coaches moved Scott over to safety just to make room for players like Walker and Lawrence because they're too good to sit.
For Walker's part, he believes that they've got something to prove as a unit.
"I think we're hungry. We have something to prove. I wouldn't say a chip on our shoulder, but that's sort of what it is. We're so young. We already know people are going to come at us, especially at corner," he said.
"I've started two games, and Des hasn't started any. So from that, they (opposing teams) are going to automatically (think), 'They don't have that much experience,' but we're out to prove a point to show people we can play, and we deserve to be where we're at."