Last year in April spring camp, one of the big questions surrounding the North Carolina Tar Heels defense was the No. 2 cornerback position. One of the players that was expected to take a step forward was junior cornerback Patrice Rene.
The Alexandria, VA native started his first game of his college career back in 2016 after an extremely impressive showing in camp. However, the national stage against a ranked Georgia team proved a bit to bright for the true freshman and as Lee Pace told the Heel Tough Blog Podcast on Wednesday morning. “Patrice was a guy that started his first career game, but he had two unfortunate pass interference penalties called on him and struggled to gain confidence back until last season.”
The stats show you that that analysis is spot on. In the first two seasons of his Carolina career, Rene struggled to establish consistency in his role as a rotational level at cornerback following that season opener in 2016. As a freshman, Rene played in just five more games and was on the back burner behind NFL-bound corners M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. He would finish his freshman season with 16 total tackles and two pass deflections.
As a sophomore, Rene was expected to compete for the starting job opposite of M.J. Stewart, but was instead beat out by junior Corey Bell Jr., who had a fantastic fall camp and then eventually by fellow sophomore K.J. Sails, who would take over the starting job midseason and never turn it back over, putting together a breakout season for himself.
Rene would get one more chance to earn the starting job back that he had won as a freshman last preseason. Rene had the tough task of battling off the talented sophomore C.J. Cotman, who impressed as a true freshman in his limited role. Rene would win the battle and start the first two games of the season before being replaced in the first half against East Carolina after struggling to contain East Carolina wide receiver Trevon Brown.
Many thought that might have seemingly been the end for Rene. However, the story was only just beginning for Rene.
Injuries would ravage the Tar Heel secondary over the coming weeks, as both K.J. Sails and C.J. Cotman were lost for the season following the game against Pittsburgh. With the door open, Rene and Greg Ross Jr. were placed into the starting lineup. Rene’s first game back in the starting lineup against Miami was part of an overall poor performance in which the Heels allowed 354 yards on just 46 total offensive plays.
The Heels would have a much needed bye week following that 47-10 loss. That bye week was a new beginning for Rene. Following the two week layoff, he was faced with the task of being matched up with one of the ACC’s top receivers at the time in Virginia Tech’s Damon Hazelton. He responded by having the best game of his college career, holding Hazelton to just two catches for 36 yards and came down with his first career interception in the game, as well.
Some wondered if that game was simply a flash in the pan, though, as the Heels headed on the road to face the Syracuse Orange. Instead, Rene would put together another career game, forcing two important turnovers late including an interception that nearly gave the Heels a chance to win the game at the end of regulation.
Rene would close the season by grading out as one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC and allowing the second-lowest passer rating against him at a 41.3 passer rating. He quickly became one of the Heels most consistent players down the stretch of the season along with being the lockdown corner the Heels needed late in the season.
Now, as the Tar Heels open spring camp for the 2019 season, Rene is slated to be one of the leaders of a defense that will be going through a scheme change and a loss of some major leaders especially in the front seven. Rene’s renewed energy also has to be encouraging. “I couldn’t wait to come out onto the field. It had been a long time coming.”
The key for the Heels will now be to find that starting corner opposite of Rene. While Sails and Cotman are expected to come back from injury, the new staff will demand more consistency from both of them and there will be plenty of competition behind them that could lend a new name opposite of Rene. Even with this battle raging and another one mounting at strong safety, the emergence of Rene and slot cornerback Trey Morrison and Myles Dorn’s choice to return leaves the Heels secondary in a solid spot headed towards the 2019 season.