Talent Building in Secondary


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Even with a trio of returning starters in the secondary, strong play from fresh faces throughout spring ball have improved depth and elevated expectations for North Carolina's defensive backfield.

Jabari Price and Tre Boston graduated, while Tim Scott shifted to free safety from corner. Those significant changes, however, didn't prevent other members of the secondary from announcing their presence in spring practice, including Saturday's spring game.

Junior safety Sam Smiley, who missed last season due to a foot injury, led all defensive players with 11 tackles and added two pass breakups and a sack. Sophomores Dominique Green and Des Lawrence both tallied seven tackles, while Alex Dixon intercepted one pass and created another with a tipped pass.

The biggest introduction in spring ball, however, was true freshman M.J. Stewart, a cornerback out of Arlington, Va. Stewart posted six tackles, intercepted a pass and broke up a third-down pass play in the red zone.

"Every day since spring camp started, M.J. has been impressing me more and more," linebacker Travis Hughes said. "I didn't get a chance to watch too much film on him, but Lord, the boy absolutely knows how to play football. He knows that corner spot really well. He's smart and he's physical. He wants to play and he's getting better."

Stewart has played so well, in fact, that head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following Saturday's game that the rookie is "definitely in the rotation" for the fall.

"He can play boundary corner or field corner," Fedora said. "He's learning both and he's really made some plays for us throughout spring. Today wasn't the only day he's done that. He's done that throughout the spring so he's really had a great spring."

Stewart is playing behind a pair of true sophomores at corner in Brian Walker (two tackles) and Lawrence.

That level of talent, according to Fedora, is why associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning felt comfortable in moving Scott to safety.

"If you're going to take and move him from one spot to another then you better have some guys that can go and play because he's the only one that had any experience out of all of them," Fedora said. "Brian Walker and Des Lawrence have really done a nice job this spring and then you throw in M.J. and I think Vic feels very comfortable back there with those guys."

Add in Green at strong safety and the youth movement on the back end is in full motion.

"Those guys hit hard," Smiley said. "I've never seen young guys come in and hit so hard. They play hard and with our leadership, they're just going to [get] better."

Speaking of Smiley, who said he got back to 100 percent health in January, his experience will pay dividends at safety.

"I think Sam's come on pretty good," Fedora said. "He's a guy that's got a lot of speed back there. As soon as he gets more comfortable with each and every call and all of the adjustments to make, I think he's definitely going to make an impact on defense."

UNC's defense intercepted three passes on Saturday while only allowing two touchdown passes, one of which came on a trick play from Quinshad Davis to T.J. Thorpe.


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