For two former running backs that combined for over 7,500 rushing yards in high school, the position changes did not occur without difficulty.
Rich was approached by head coach Butch Davis during last fall’s bye week about making the move to the defensive side of the ball. After rushing just 13 times for 32 yards, the Marietta, Ga. product agreed to the switch.
“It was a hard decision for me at first,” Rich said. “My first love is running back, so it was a hard switch. In high school, I didn’t like to play defense. But now that I’m on defense, I love it, really.”
The red-shirt junior’s first appearance at cornerback took place against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, an experience that he termed as “crazy.” But after several plays, Rich began to understand that it was just about playing football. He finished the season with 13 tackles in the secondary.
For White, it wasn’t until his return from Christmas break that his postseason meeting with Davis occurred, and that’s when the decision was made to move to cornerback.
While Rich had five games of experience to build his knowledge of the defensive backfield for the offseason, White had no such luck. The transition has not been an easy one for the Asheville, N.C. native.
"It’s just the little things… It gets to you after a while,” the red-shirt sophomore said. “Sometimes you get down because it’s frustrating. I mean, I’ve played tailback my whole life, but I’ve never played corner in my life. So switching from tailback to probably the most difficult position on the field is tough. Some days I would just feel down and out, but you’ve just got to pick yourself back up.”
It wasn’t exactly a smooth process for Rich, either.
“I’m a lot more comfortable than I was last year,” Rich said. “Last year was just trial by fire, but now I know the position a lot better and know certain things that would have helped me out last year.”
One trait that both players share is speed, which is an essential quality to play in a Butch Davis defense. White’s 4.34 40-yard dash speed is tops in the program.
“I think it’s given me an advantage, because there are some things that I might lack because of not having the experience, but I can make up for with my speed,” White said. “Playing hard and fast makes up for a lot of things that you might be missing.”
While Rich is also fleet-footed, he concedes the speed race to his teammate.
“Johnny’s really fast – that’s all I can say,” Rich said, laughing. “He’s probably the fastest [defensive back] that we’ve got. You know I’m in the 4.4s, but Johnny’s in the 4.3s.”
The first full training camp at their new position has gone as well as could possibly be expected.
“I think it was pretty good for me,” White said. “I think I made a lot strides in getting better but there’s still a lot of things that I have to work on, the little things that will get me prepared for the games… I’m starting to feel comfortable. Certain things like keeping my eyes in certain places and trusting my reads and stuff like that are the troubles I’m having right now.”
No injury is a good thing, but Charles Brown’s battle with a nagging ankle sprain since the first week of training camp has given both White and Rich additional reps with the second and third units in the secondary.
Cornerback is arguably North Carolina’s thinnest position, so if the Tar Heels are hoping to go bowling this season, these two former running backs will play a significant role in that becoming a reality. It just happens to be on the opposite side of the ball then what White and Rich expected when they committed to UNC.