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Heel Tough Blog: 2023 Position Previews- DB

UNC Athletics

Today marks nine days until the start of the Tar Heels 2023 season and we continue to get you ready with an in-depth look at the roster. Today, we close down the defensive side of the ball with a look at the group that Gene Chizik says is the key to the defense this season, the defensive backs.


Last year, the unit had its worst season since 2003, allowing 271.3 passing yards per game and featured two players who allowed over 600 yards in coverage. The room was completely overhauled in the offseason, starting with the replacement of cornerback coach Dré Bly with Jason Jones. They saw eight players exit the program through the transfer portal and replaced them with four experienced transfer portal additions and four true freshmen. The hope is that the retooling can be exactly what this group needs to prevent them from being the liability they were a year ago.


Leading the group of transfers is junior cornerback Alijah Huzzie. An FCS All-American a year ago, Huzzie had six interceptions in 2022 and he’s pulled down twelve in his three seasons at the college level. The Tar Heels have lacked a corner that can consistently lock down receivers for years and the hope is that the ability to take away the football will translate to the Power 5 level. So far, the reviews from the coaching staff are glowing and there is confidence that he will be able to provide more consistent play there than the two starters from a year ago.


He’ll join sophomore Marcus Allen, who flashed late last year and has built of that success this offseason to become a starter. In the 175 snaps that he played last year, he allowed just 86 yards on nine receptions when targeted and showed a nice aggressiveness when it came to playing the run, which wasn’t consistent from the corners that started earlier in the season. The question is, can he build off those flashes and take that next step unlike many of the young corners that we have seen in recent years?


In the nickel, junior DeAndre Boykins is set to start again, but he is one guy who needs to show drastic improvement. Last year, he allowed 724 yards in coverage, the most of any player in college football, on 58 receptions. He did some really nice things for the team in run defense, but they simply can not have someone who struggles that badly in coverage on the field again this season. The hope is that Jones has been able to help him correct some of his issues, but if he hasn’t, the team can be hesitant to go to someone else there.


That someone else might be Georgia State transfer Antavious “Stick” Lane. Lane provides some nice versatility and can make an impact at safety or in the nickel and he too is a guy that has thrived on taking the football away so far in his career. In his four seasons at Georgia State, Lane intercepted eleven passes, including a career-high five back in 2021. He was also very impactful for the Panthers in run defense, leading the Sun Belt conference in solo tackles each of the past two years. The biggest challenge for Lane is getting on the field, though. He was the lone transfer that the team did not have in the spring due to when he announced his transfer decision and he has been banged up the majority of fall camp. Getting him up to speed will be a challenge for the team in season, but it is crucial because of how impactful he can be for this secondary.


At safety, Giovanni Biggers is set to start again with the expectation that he will be more consistent than a year ago. He finished third on the team in total tackles with 69 but did struggle with missed tackles. In coverage, he was solid, allowing just 12 catches in the 777 snaps that he played. If he can be more effective as a tackler and do a better job of rotating over the top to help in coverage, he has a good chance to give the Tar Heels a reliable safety that they have been lacking since Mack Brown’s first season back.


Like Allen, sophomore Will Hardy had a strong finish to last season and has positioned himself to be the starter at field safety if he can get healthy. He started the final two games of the season last year, looking good for the team on both occasions, proving he can impact the game both in coverage and in run defense. He was limited the majority of spring camp and has missed all of fall camp with a setback after offseason surgery, so there is some uncertainty about how much he will play, especially early in the season, which is frustrating after how he played last year.


If he can’t play early in the season, the team will likely turn back to Don Chapman in hopes that he can provide enough stability at the position until Hardy or Lane is ready to go. While he only started one game last year, Chapman has plenty of starting experience and the defensive backfield played better as a whole when he was seeing more reps late in the season. He is a limited player, but he is serviceable enough to hold it down until the health of the room improves.


The rotational options in the room provide a nice balance of experience and youth. Redshirt freshman Tayon Holloway has been one of the most talked about players on the defensive side of the football this fall and is positioned to play a significant role in his second year. He has taken a major leap and will rotate with Huzzie and Allen, giving the team a promising three-man rotation at corner.


Junior Lejond Cavazos is currently recovering from a lower-body injury, but he will be a solid fourth corner when returns. Last year, he was solid in his three starts to close the season, but he did allow 250 yards and a touchdown on 18 receptions on his 329 snaps. He fits perfectly as a rotational corner that can thrive in limited snaps and that looks like the role that he will be able to assume this season barring a ton of injuries.


Grad transfer Armani Chatman is another guy who is a solid depth option for the team at corner. Chatman started 25 of the 49 games that he played in at Virginia Tech, including all eleven games that he played a year ago. He might not be a shutdown corner, but he has proven to be serviceable enough so far in his college career to start if needed. Having him as a piece that can rotate in off the bench shows just how deep this group is. 


Grad transfer Derrik Allen will give the team an experienced option at safety, albeit not nearly as seasoned as the other transfers. Allen has only started three games in his college career, but he has made some solid contributions as a rotational piece in the first four years of his college career. If he can play a similar role this season, this safety group will have a good amount of capable bodies.


In the nickel, the depth guys will be important, especially early in the year. Both Boykins and Lane are dealing with injuries and have missed time in fall camp, leaving the team to find other guys that can play significant snaps at the position. True freshman Kaleb Cost seems to be the guy standing out the most since joining the team in the fall. Mack Brown has liked the maturity that he’s played with and the hope is that he can be ready to play some important snaps if needed in the opener.


Converted running back D.J. Jones is the other player that is getting extended snaps in the nickel since those two haven’t been practicing. Jones spent the majority of his time in the spring working at safety before the move to nickel, so there is a lot of growing he has to do at the position, as well. He may still be a factor early in the season, though, with the injury issues.


The three other true freshmen in the room outside of Cost will assume deeper depth roles this season. Ayden Duncanson is the one that would have the best chance to play because there isn’t nearly as many bodies in front of him, but that’s still a stretch. Tre Miller and Ty Adams will have the chance to learn behind the bevy of experienced players in front of them at the corner spot and make their impact on special teams.


The unit will have six walk-ons this season. Junior Christopher Holliday is the most experienced of the group and probably the one that is most trusted to play if ever needed by the staff. Fellow junior Naari Short, redshirt freshmen Major Byrd and Jaden Selby and true freshmen Jack Blythe and Reggie Love II round out the unit.



Projected Depth Chart

FC

#28 Alijah Huzzie, Jr.

# 6 Lejond Cavazos, Jr.

# 9 Armani Chatman, Jr.

#15 Tre Miller, Fr.

STAR

#16 DeAndre Boykins, Jr.

# 1 Antavious ‘Stick’ Lane, Gr.

#21 Kaleb Cost, Fr.

#26 D.J. Jones, Gr.

FS

#27 Giovanni Biggers, Gr.

# 2 Don Chapman, Sr.

#18 Christopher Holliday, Jr.

BS

#31 Will Hardy, So.

# 7 Derrik Allen, Gr.

#13 Ayden Duncanson, Fr.

#39 Major Byrd, RFr.

BC

#28 Alijah Huzzie, Jr.

#20 Tayon Holloway, RFr.

#11 Ty Adams, Fr.

#38 Naari Short, Jr.

#35 Jaden Selby, RFr.


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