We close out our preview of the 2021 Tar Heel defense with the unit with the most experienced depth this year, the secondary. The group will combine one of the nation’s best corner trios with a group of safeties that have plenty of experience but are in need of more consistency this season.
Preseason first team All-ACC corner Tony Grimes is set for a huge sophomore season following a dominant finish to his true freshman season. Grimes started each of the final four games of the season with his best performances coming in the final two games of the season against Miami and Texas A&M. He was tremendous in press man coverage and showed that he will be one of the toughest players to throw against this season. There is a legitimate chance that he could find himself on an All-American team by the end of the season.
Opposite of him is still a question mark only because of the health of sophomore Storm Duck, who missed all but two games a year ago because of a leg injury. He returned for spring practice, but tweaked his lower leg early on and never returned in full capacity, eventually missing the spring game. When he has been healthy, he has proved to be another lockdown corner in press man situations for the team and if he could stay healthy, he could continue to build on what was a very strong true freshman season in 2019.
Junior Kyler McMichael is back after starting eight of the nine games that he was active for a year ago and will push for the opportunity to start again this season. While he may not have graded out as well in coverage as Grimes and Duck, he was still productive when he was targeted and is more than a serviceable option on the outside. At the least, McMichael will be one of the nation’s top rotational corners and if he has to start or even wins the starting job outright, the team is in as good of a spot on the outside as they have been in years.
While there is a ton of excitement about what the team has on the outside, there is more to be desired in the middle of the field where the safeties had their ups and downs a year ago. Senior Trey Morrison is back after headlining the group a year ago and just like the rest of the unit is looking for a bit more evenness in his performances week in and week out. He was the team’s best coverage safety of the guys who started games in 2020 and provided some solid help in the run game from time to time. There is no doubt that he will play a significant role in the defense once again this season and could earn more than just the All-ACC honorable mention that he earned last year.
The question is who will be next to him? Junior Don Chapman started all eleven games that he played in, but was arguably the most hit and miss player in the defensive backfield. While he had games where he looked really good, such as the game against Virginia, there were plenty of games late in the season, such as the game against Wake Forest, where he was picked apart. While he was beaten quite a few times in coverage, the most concerning part about his struggles may have been that he simply disappeared in run defense, as well, making him a liability on the field at times late in the season. He has been spending a lot of time this spring at nickel and that might be the best spot for him if he can regain some confidence and play the way he did in coverage as a freshman.
Fellow junior Cam’Ron Kelly started four games a year ago and had his struggles at times in coverage, as well. Figuring those lapse out will be key to him taking the step forward that Mack Brown was talking about for him back in the spring. The good news for him, though, is that he is such a big help in the run game that it is hard to keep him off the field. If he can take that step forward that Brown was talking about in fall camp, there is a good chance he could be starting against Virginia Tech.
There is also a chance that sophomore Ja’Qurious Conley could play some safety this season. He had an outstanding finish to his freshman season in the nickel, having career games against MIami and Texas A&M, shining in run defense throughout the season. He has been taking a lot of reps at safety since the spring and it seems like the indications are that the staff will continue to use him back there in the fall. Like we’ve seen before, the move from nickel to safety is a common one and the long term goal was probably to eventually have Conley move back there. If he could make that move now and thrive the way that he did late last season on the back end, this defensive backfield could definitely be one of the best in the conference this season.
Another player who may have a chance to factor in in the battle for reps at safety is junior Giovanni Biggers, who was a starter in the spring game. While the spring game is something that you should always take with a grain of salt, it can’t be completely overlooked, either. The team is still looking for some defensive playmakers that can create turnovers, as well, and if he can prove to be that or one of consistent threats back there, he may be able to earn a significant role this season.
Redshirt freshman Cameron Roseman-Sinclair is another name who may be worth keeping an eye on to factor in at some point. The strength of his game is definitely his ability in run defense as an in-the-box defender, but he is much better in coverage than many would think by looking at him. It still feels like he is a bit behind these other options, though, based on when he took his snaps in the spring game.
True freshman Dontavius Nash enrolled early, but right now it doesn’t look as if he will be much of a factor this fall. He has some of the better coverage skills of the safeties in this secondary having played all four years of his high school on the outside at corner in a lot of press-man coverage, but he just doesn;t have the experience as a tackler yet that he’ll need if he’s going to play a big role back there.
Meanwhile, at corner, the depth is as seasoned as it has been in a long time. Junior DeAndre Hollins provides plenty of experience for a depth piece, starting five games for the team in the last two seasons. He has held his own when he has been on the field for the Tar Heels and can play both on the outside and in the nickel, providing some nice depth at both positions.
Fellow junior Obi Egbuna hasn’t played nearly as much as Hollins has, but he has seen some important reps at a couple of different moments over the last two years, meaning he has some experience if he is needed. He played 96 snaps a year ago and his numbers are rather comparable to Hollins, setting him up to serve in a similar role if needed.
Three true freshmen besides Nash are looking to make their names heard in the room, as well, this fall. DeAndre Boykins was an early enrollee and should have a chance to battle for some backup reps this season. The nickel is where he will likely see most of his snaps this season after he thrived at that spot throughout his high school career. Conley and Chapman will probably take the majority of the snaps at the nickel spot, but it will be interesting to monitor this talented young freshman who will probably have a major special teams role.
Summer enrollee Tymir Brown will also likely be fighting to climb the depth chart in the nickel starting in fall camp. With him being a late enrollee, though, it seems like he will be another guy who will have to make his impact this season on special teams if he is active.
Dontae Balfour also joined the team in the summer and will serve as some deeper depth further down the depth chart early on. The Tar Heel staff really went out of their way to land him late in 2021 cycle, so he is a name that people need to keep an eye on over the next few seasons.
Junior Javon Terry is back to provide some deeper depth at both corner and safety after he opted out of the 2020 season. He provides some nice flexibility for the team if needed and he has some special teams value as well.
Two walk-on’s will be a part of the unit this year, as both sophomore Val Edwards and redshirt freshman Christopher Holliday are back this season.
This is a unit that has a ton of talent and depth overall. The corners have a chance for a special season, but the key to this unit's success will be finding those consistent threats at safety. Brown would also like to see the emergence of some playmakers that can create turnovers, something the unit has lacked for the last handful of years. There is reason to be confident that this unit has the resources to achieve both of those goals.
Projected Depth Chart:
#20 Tony Grimes, So.
#15 DeAndre Hollins, Jr.
#13 Obi Egbuna, Jr.
# 4 Trey Morrison, Sr.
#27 Giovanni Biggers, Jr.
#21 Dontavius Nash, Fr.
#18 Christopher Holliday, RFr.
# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, Jr.
# 3 Cameron Roseman-Sinclair, RFr.
#16 Javon Terry, Jr.
#38 Val Edwards, So.
#29 Storm Duck, So.
# 1 Kyler McMichael, Jr.
#14 Dontae Balfour, Fr.
# 0 Ja’Qurious Conley, So.
# 2 Don Chapman, Jr.
#24 DeAndre Boykins, Fr.
#28 Tymir Brown, Fr.