UNC Tar Heels football cornerbacks: Sudden depth of defense

North Carolina's Kyler McMichael (1) stops Texas A&M's Ainias Smith (0) after a 14-yard pass in the third quarter at the Capital One Orange Bowl on Saturday January 2, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

North Carolina’s Kyler McMichael (1) stops Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith (0) after a 14-yard pass in the third quarter at the Capital One Orange Bowl on Saturday January 2, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

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The attrition North Carolina suffered at the cornerback position last season sometimes made it seem like there was no one there to play the position. Now it looks like the Tar Heels have too many to pick just two.

Besides wondering who is going to start, it is fair to ask how they are going to handle the rotation, starting with the cornerback.

Carolina returns junior Kyler McMichael and sophomore Tony Grimes, the tandem who played the bulk of the snaps in the last four games last season. Sophomore Storm Duck is also back. He made nine freshman starts in 2019 and was a one-game starter last season before sustaining a season-ending injury in Game Two of the season at Boston College.

“The return of Storm Duck, for example, really pressed this corner group,” said UNC coach Mack Brown. “So Kyler and Tony Grimes and Storm, Dae Dae Hollins, these guys are fighting hard to get on the pitch. And we were trying to find corners two years ago, we didn’t have enough to play.

UNC defensive back coach Dr. Bly said Duck was arguably the best corner in the ACC at the time of his injury. And, despite a separate injury that slowed his participation this month, Duck is now back in training at full speed.

If the coaches have decided on their starters, they have not yet told the players. But the truth is, coaches just might not have a definitive answer, either.

“I have no idea how the rotation is going to go at the moment, but it’s a very competitive room,” said McMichael. “We push each other every day. I mean everyone in this room is so talented. Everyone has their own special quality, whether it’s the skill of the ball, the speed, the physique, so it’s definitely going to be interesting to see how that goes. But the more depth, the better.

Bly said everyone’s playing time will likely work out. During his days playing at the corner, he said he averages 60 snaps per game. But in today’s game, offenses are happening at a faster pace and without a huddle, which has pushed it to 80 snaps per game.

“It’s a lot of runners,” Bly said. “Our guys know they’re going to need to take a breather and my guys aren’t selfish. My guys won’t be selfish at all.

Six different players got the chance to start at cornerback last season, including Hollins, who Bly also praised for having a good fall camp. McMichael made the most starts with eight followed of Patrice Rene’s five. René transferred to Rutgers to play his senior super year.

Duck’s injury changed the roster, but also a lack of consistency. When Wake Forest racked up over 400 passing yards on heels, that brought about the final change and UNC decided to follow their youth.

Grimes had moved up from the class of 2021, so it took him a good part of the season to get comfortable with the system. But once he did, the former five-star rookie took the opportunity. When he came into play in the second half against the Deacons, he never left the field for the rest of the season.

Grimes is only getting better now that he has had a full strength training offseason and can participate in the spring drills.

“The talent is going to take you far,” said Grimes. “But once you get to know football, once you know the combination of routes, like where they line up and when they’re going to run, that’s when you go your way.”

McMichael, like Grimes, was inexperienced at the cornerback position before he had his first chance to be an all-down player last season. During his first year at Clemson, McMichael mainly competed on special teams.

He said last year’s experience gave him more confidence heading into this season.

“Now that I’m in the field it’s not a lot to think it’s about knowing my plan, I know my mission, now it’s just about playing and making games,” said McMichael. “Last year you saw me more, I guess you could say, play more conservatively. This year, one of my goals is to be more of a ball hawk, to anticipate things more, to be just a playmaker. ”

One thing the Heels could use is more high school playmakers. Carolina had just eight team interceptions last year and of those, Grimes and Hollins were the only two cornerbacks with a pick.

Turnover was a point of emphasis on defense. After a year of trying to line up properly, Grimes believes cornerbacks will contribute more to the Tar Heels’ take-away totals.

“One thing Coach Bly really talks about and pushes us about – and (defensive coordinator coach Jay) Bateman and Coach Brown – is playing with the ball,” said Grimes. “When the ball is in the air, the DB have to make a play on the ball because that is what changes the games.”

Projected UNC secondary depth map

Tony Grimes (SO) 6-0 190
Kyler McMichael (JR) 6-0 210
Storm duck (SO) 6-0 205
Dae Dae Hollins (JR) 6-2 210
JaQurious Conley (SO) 6-0 210
Cam’Ron Kelly (JR) 6-1 210
Trey Morrison (SR) 5-9 190
Giovanni Biggers (JR) 6-1 195
Don Chapman (JR) 6-1 195
Trey Morrison (SR) 5-9 190

Previous UNC preview installments

Wide receivers

Special teams

Other Triangle ACC previews

Defensive backs

Special teams

Wide receivers

CL Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings over two decades of reporting experience, including stints as a beat writer at Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stint at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he won an APSE award, he stopped by ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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