In three games against its in-state ACC rivals – Wake Forest, Duke and N.C. State – UNC gave up 1,105 yards and six touchdowns through the air. ACC opponents averaged 290.4 passing yards against the Tar Heels last fall, raising questions this offseason as to how associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning would go about minimizing missed defensive assignments while also upgrading the talent base.
A trio of highly touted incoming recruits – Desmond Lawrence, Donnie Miles and Brian Walker – is expected to factor into the equation once they arrive this summer, but in the meantime, a number of underclassmen are showing improvement in the defensive backfield this spring.
On Wednesday, sophomore Kameron Jackson and true freshman Dominique Green worked at the safety spots with the first team during the media portion of practice, while sophomore Malik Simmons and junior Tim Scott manned the cornerback positions. Juniors Ryan Mangum and Brandon Ellerbe worked at Ram.
Senior cornerback Jabari Price and sophomore corner T.J. Jiles donned orange jerseys, signifying limited participation due to undisclosed injuries.
Whether Jackson’s move ahead of senior Tre Boston at free safety is semi-permanent or not remains to be seen. Regardless, quarterback Bryn Renner highlighted Boston’s role in the secondary’s improved play.
“The secondary is rotating a lot,” Renner told reporters on Wednesday. “Tre’s doing a great job of just communicating and being that leader back there. He did it all season for us last year, so we’re looking for a big season from him this year.”
When asked to describe the secondary’s play thus far, Renner replied: “Fast.”
“I think they made a lot of adjustments in the offseason,” the senior signal caller said. “The guys are moving around a lot quicker, knowing where to go, knowing where to be.”
Green is a relative unknown to UNC football fans. The 5-foo-11, 175-pound safety walked on the team in January after spending time at Hargrave Military Academy. Green had offers from Cincinnati and Texas Tech, yet chose UNC after developing a strong relationship with Koenning.
Simmons tallied five tackles in 11 games last season, primarily playing on special teams. The move up the depth chart with Price sidelined has been smooth.
“It wasn’t much of a transition,” Simmons said. “It’s just something where I had to be more on my p’s and q’s. I didn’t want to let [defensive backs] coach [Dan] Disch down by having missed assignments or anything like that.”
Renner admitted that the offense has had “a little trouble” working against Simmons in team drills, highlighting the sophomore’s cover skills and improved hip action.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora praised Simmons’ efforts following Wednesday’s practice at Navy Fields.
“Malik’s getting a lot of reps and that’s one good thing about it,” Fedora said. “He’s building on what he did last year and he’s really picked up exactly where he left off and gotten better. You can see that he worked at it during winter.”
UNC only lost two members to graduation off its 2012 secondary depth chart – Rams Gene Robinson and Pete Mangum. The addition of Green, as well as the summer enrollees, will provide Koenning and Disch with a deep roster to work with in the defensive backfield this fall.