We close our look at the defense with a look at the deepest position on this 2020 Tar Heel defense. The Tar Heels 2019 secondary looked set up for success, but a rash of injuries derailed the group a bit. The good news is, plenty of players saw meaningful reps here a year ago, which will help the Tar Heels have one of the more experienced units in the ACC. The unit was much more optimistic a year ago, creating 20 turnovers, the most by a Tar Heel team since 2015. While the group will be looking to improve on their 229.6 passing yards allowed from a year ago, better health and depth should help with that.
There is so much talent in this year’s secondary that it doesn’t feel like anyone is guaranteed a starting spot. Senior safety Myles Wolfolk feels like the closest thing to a guaranteed starter after a strong junior season. Wolfolk played in just five games due to injury, but looked fantastic in the first four games of the season prior to injury. His three interceptions in those first four games of the season led the team and he was also a big help in the run game prior to getting shut down for the season. With Myles Dorn gone, one would expect to see Wolfolk as a starter whenever this takes the field, but in this secondary nothing is guaranteed.
There are so many great cornerbacks that will be battling for reps, but the most likely of the group to start is senior Patrice Rene, a fifth year senior who’s back from a torn ACL. He finished the 2018 season as one of the top cover corners in the ACC and was off to a nice start to the 2019 season after missing the first half of the South Carolina game serving a suspension handed down by the ACC after the season-ending scuffle with rival NC State to close out 2018. Even with everything that has happened with COVID-19, Rene’s rehab has been going well and it looks like he’ll be a full go whenever the season starts. It would be a shock if Rene isn’t one of the starters on the outside in Week 1.
Another player who saw a lot of time a year ago at outside corner who will play a lot this season is junior Trey Morrison. He started nine games on the outside while battling injury issues of his own from midseason on. While he put together a solid season on the outside, he is similar to former corner M.J. Stewart, as he shines best while playing the nickel. With the added talent and depth at corner this season, there is a good chance that he could see a bulk of his reps in the nickel corner role.
The reason the Tar Heel staff might be able to move Morrison back to the slot is because of the emergence of now sophomore Storm Duck. He tied with Morrison for the most starts a year ago and thrived while having to learn on the fly due to the lack of depth. Missing spring and this offseason hurts a little for a guy who looked like he could take another big step, but one would expect him to be a starter, especially to open the season, unless someone really impresses in fall camp.
Sophomore transfer Kyler McMichael looks to be the biggest threat to claim one of those starting spots. Last spring before transferring, McMichael fought for a starting job at cornerback for a Clemson team that landed both of their starting corners on the All-ACC teams a year ago. Not having spring practice definitely hurts his chances, but there will be some sort of camp prior to the season starting and he was able to impress the staff in practice throughout most of last year. A good pre-season camp for him should, at the least, seal a rotational role for him this season.
Reclassified true freshman Tony Grimes is the biggest wild card here. The former 5✮ is already one of the top man coverage corners on the team and all of the skills are already there. The biggest challenge for him is getting adjusted to college life a year earlier than he was expected in the midst of one of the craziest offseasons in college football history. The talent may be too much to keep off the field, though, and he’ll get the chance to prove himself in pre-season camp.
The biggest battle will be for the starting safety spot alongside Myles Wolfolk. Sophomore Don Chapman started the final three games of the season and showed a lot of promise in the action he saw. This offseason could have been a chance for the versatile safety, who’s ball skills might be one of the best on the team, to take another step forward, but it still feels like he is a slight favorite heading into pre-season camp to win the starting job.
Then there is sophomore Cam’Ron Kelly. Although he only saw major reps in one game a year ago, he showed a ton of upside in that one start against Clemson and also impressed the staff in fall camp a year ago. If he can build on what he showed last year in fall camp, there is enough pure talent here that he could very well come away with the starting job. Similar to Ford, even if he doesn’t earn the starting job at safety, he will be able to provide great depth at safety or at the nickel spot.
Sophomore Giovanni Biggers appeared in six games as a freshman and he is another player who is ready to compete for time at safety this season. In high school, Biggers' game was very well-rounded and looked like the perfect fit for this Tar Heel defense that thrives with extremely athletic players who can handle multiple roles. While he didn’t see a ton of playing time last year, the snaps he did play showed some nice upside and if he can have a big fall camp, he could come away with a significant role this season and potentially even the starting job.
The wild card here is true freshman Ja’Qurious Conley. The extremely talented former 4✮ has all of the tools to be a productive player at safety, the main question is, can he grasp the Tar Heel defensive system quickly enough to make an impact this season? If he can thrive in fall camp, don’t be shocked if Conley earns a significant role or possibly even gets a chance to start with the lack of a clear starter here.
The last name to keep an eye on in this race is fellow true freshman Cameron Roseman-Sinclair. His choice to early enroll unfortunately didn’t give him a significant advantage with the cancellation of spring practice, but being a part of workouts in the winter did benefit him a little. He is another player who will be able to help the team in run defense, as he thrived as an in-the-box safety in his final two seasons of his high school career. His coverage ability is better than some may think, but he will still have some work to do there. The Tar Heels may look to use Roseman-Sinclair as a hybrid linebacker/safety, something that his skill set fits very well, but if they don’t, he’ll definitely compete for reps at this vacant safety spot.
Sophomore Bryson Richardson could also see some time in the slot this season as he returns from an Achilles injury that he suffered last July. Richardson was productive in his true freshman season with the team back in 2018 and was set to handle a bigger role prior to injury last season. The Tar Heel staff may want to also use Richardson at safety this season with the lack of proven depth, but either way, he should see some significant reps this season.
There will be another group that can likely play either inside or outside that will look to earn themselves a role this season. Sophomore DeAndre Hollins has been forced into action at one point in each of his first two seasons, including two starts a year ago. Hollins has held his own and the good news is that if he is needed, he is serviceable enough and won’t get you killed on the outside. Hollins challenged for reps at nickel prior to last preseason, but this year it will be a much tougher group to navigate if he wants to earn a reps. He should hold a similar role to the one he has in each of the past few seasons, but with the numbers around him, he will have to battle for his spot on the depth chart this season, something he didn’t really have to do in his first two seasons on campus.
Sophomore Obi Egbuna appeared in eleven games a year ago as a true freshman, spending most of that time on special teams. While he’ll likely play a big role on special teams again this season, he is hoping he can make an impact at corner. While there is a lot of talent that he’ll have to compete with, a year in the system is a nice boost for him and if his ball skills that allowed him to be so successful in high school have translated, he’ll have a fighting shot at earning some reps at one of the three corner spots.
Four players that were expected to be a part of the secondary this season will not be available. Senior D.J. Ford, junior Bryce Watts and sophomore Javon Terry have all opted out of the season due to concern around COVID-19, while junior Tre Shaw is out for the season as he rehabs from a season-edning injury suffered this offseason.
Sophomore Welton Spottsville joins the secondary after transitioning wide receiver this offseason. Spottsville had a nice career at the high school level at safety, a spot the Tar Heels will likely give him a chance, as well as the nickelback spot that has grown a bit thinner with the opt outs.
Three walk-on’s are also expected to be a part of the team this year. True freshman preferred walk-on Christopher Holliday will join sophomore Drew Homschek and redshirt freshman Val Edwards as guys without scholarships that will hope to earn some reps somewhere in the secondary or on special teams this season.
Projected Depth Chart
# 5 Patrice Rene, Sr.
#20 Tony Grimes, Fr.
#15 DeAndre Hollins, So.
#29 Storm Duck, So.
# 1 Kyler McMichael, So.
#13 Obi Egbuna, So.
# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr.
# 6 Bryson Richardson, So.
#14 Welton Spottsville, So.
#11 Myles Wolfolk, Sr.
# 0 Ja’Qurious Conley, Fr.
# 3 Cameron Roseman-Sinclair, Fr.
# Christopher Holliday, Fr.
#38 Val Edwards, RFr.
#13 Don Chapman, So.
# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, So.
#27 Giovanni Biggers, So.
#19 Drew Homschek, So.