The Tar Heels lost a key starter for the season on Thursday afternoon on the defensive side of the football. Earlier this afternoon, Tar Heel Illustrated and Inside Carolina reported that starting safety and one of the key leaders in the secondary, senior Myles Wolfolk, will be out for the season due to academic ineligibility. According to a statement released by the program, Wolfolk, a graduate student at the university this year, had fallen behind on his classwork leading to this decision. Wolfolk being a grad student means he will not be returning next season and has played his last game in a Tar Heel uniform.
Wolfolk entered this season off of a lower body injury that cost him eight games a year ago. He finished Saturday’s season opener against Syracuse with five total tackles, 0.5 a tackle for loss and one pass deflection, tying for second on the team in total tackles for the day. Prior to his injury a year ago, Wolfolk was off to a fantastic start, starting each of the first four games of the season at strong safety, finishing with 25 total tackles, 1.0 TFL and three interceptions, including two huge picks off of South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley to seal the Tar Heels first season opening win against an FBS opponent since 1999. Wolfolk finishes his Tar Heel career with 86 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions and three pass deflections.
While most of the other attrition that the Tar Heels have seen in their secondary this year have had rather minor impacts, this one is a tough blow for this team. Not only do they lose an extremely talented and versatile safety, but they also lose a defensive leader in the midst of a season. The pressure is now on a rather inexperienced, but talented group of safeties to help replace him.
Sophomore Cam’Ron Kelly is the favorite to slide into the spot, after starting for the injured Wolfolk a year ago and being listed directly behind him on the preseason depth at strong safety. In his lone start a year ago against Clemson, Kelly finished with five total tackles, three of which were solos, before leaving the game late in the fourth quarter with an ACL injury that would end his season. In Saturday’s game, Kelly saw his first action since that day, playing 13 snaps and registering one tackle. Kelly has the talent needed to make an impact here, but filling Wolfolk’s shoes will still be a tall task.
Fellow sophomore Giovanni Biggers is another player who could see additional reps now. Biggers was listed as the backup free safety in the initial depth chart that was released and had a productive preseason according to the staff. Biggers played in ten snaps this past weekend, pulling down his first career interception. While we haven’t been able to see him take any substantial defensive reps to this point in his career, Biggers was brought in as a versatile safety that could play both in the box and deep in coverage, making him a nice fit here at strong safety.
Another player who could see some time here is true freshman Ja’Qurious Conley. The talented young gun is currently backing up Trey Morrison in the slot, but he was a standout safety at the prep level and is expected to play safety sometime later on in his Tar Heel career. Conley flies around and can cover a lot of space in a short period of time, while also lowering the boom. His coverage skills are also very promising and while he may make a few mistakes that the older guys wouldn’t, his skillset might fit the position the best out of anyone that is an option for the job.
The final scenario the Tar Heels could approach could be to move their most versatile player to the spot in Morrison and find a way to replace him at the nickelback spot. The staff was raving all preseason about Morrison’s ability to rotate throughout the secondary and play all five spots and if they feel he is their best option here, you would assume they will make the move and adjust the scheme accordingly.
It will be interesting to see how the Tar Heels' secondary, a unit that was at one time seen as the deepest on the team, will be able adjust. The good news is that there are still plenty of options and this week's cancellation and next week’s scheduled bye week could allow the staff plenty of time to have their new starter ready for the Tar Heels next game, which is currently scheduled for October 3rd at Boston College. Adding an opponent next week, which is a possibility, would make having someone ready more challenging, but the good news is that the rest of the secondary is in great shape, taking some of the pressure off of whoever has to fill the vacant spot.