by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina safety Tre Boston wants to increase his team-leading 86-tackle total from last season.
The only thing he hopes might stop him: the teammates in front of him.
"My goal is to get 100 this season,'' the senior preseason All-ACC selection said last week, "but I want our linebackers to get 100, also. It's one of those things - I want them to do their job, but I want to do my job better, too."
Boston's 2012 tackle total is a double-edged sword, Boston and UNC associate head coach/ safeties coach Vic Koenning agree. On one hand, it shows one reason why the secondary - an experienced group that also returns senior Jabari Price and junior Tim Scott at the corners - is considered a strength of this defense. On the other hand, it illustrates where the rest of the defense must improve.
Too often last season, opposing players would skitter past the Tar Heels' line and through their linebackers, putting pressure on the secondary to make plays - or else. Statistically, Koenning said, cornerbacks and safeties shouldn't record many more than 50 or so tackles apiece each season.
Last year, Boston and Price (76 tackles) were first and third on the team, respectively, and Scott posted 48. In all, UNC finished eighth in ACC play in total defense, giving up 452.6 yards per game in league games - numbers everyone on the team wants to improve.
"We want the guys in front of us to make tackles, and we know they will,'' Price said, "but we also know we in the secondary have to keep aggressive."
Although UNC grabbed 16 interceptions last season and finished tied for second in the league with a plus-seven turnover margin, Price said his unit's stats could have been even better had the players been more consistently focused.
Boston admits he often grimaced during the offseason when watching game film. Sure, he got many of his tackles with his ability to "fly" to the ball, but he sometimes flew to the wrong place. Or, he said, was inconsistent with his technique.
"I was privileged to have a spot where I could be free, but I might have abused it just a little bit last year - roaming a little bit more, thinking I knew the defense better than I did,'' said Boston, who has played both safety and corner at UNC. "And now that I do know the defense, I'm everywhere this training camp. ... I can be 20 yards down the field, and all of a sudden, I'm filling in the gap, making that 'pop.' It's one of those things that when you're comfortable with your playbook, then you can play your hardest. And your smartest, and your best."
That's the hope.
No matter their tackle numbers, UNC's secondary has set the goal being tops in the ACC in interceptions, Price said, and to finish with "no big plays against us,'' Boston added. The Tar Heels believe the former is possible (and that the latter, at least, should decrease) because everyone is so much more comfortable with, and dedicated to, the 4-2-5 defensive scheme entering head coach Larry Fedora's second season.
"Talent is the least of our concerns with this secondary,'' Price said. "The concern is alignment and assignment. If each person does his job with discipline - if people's heads aren't in the clouds, or in the stands, but focused on what they need to do every play and every game -- the sky's the limit for this secondary."
And for all of the individuals playing in it.
To this point, Boston's best college game statistically remains his first, when he was pressed into service against LSU as a freshman in 2010 after 13 teammates were suspended. He finished that down-to-the-wire loss with an interception, two forced fumbles, three tackles, a pass broken up - and the confidence, he said, that he could thrive at the college level.
That aplomb has stayed with him through three years of position switches and coaching changes, and the wins and losses that have come with each. And it's why, while he remains proud of those 86 tackles he made last season, he knows he and his team can't stop and be content with those stops.
"If my [tackle] numbers are a little bit lower this season, I wouldn't be surprised, because the linebackers know what they're doing a little bit more, the whole defense knows what it's doing a little bit more, and I think that's going to show,'' he said. "But I'm still going to go out there wanting to get 10 tackles a game, force as many turnovers as I can - that's my goal. ... That's what my team counts on me to do, that's what I'm supposed to do and that's what I love doing."