Note: this story originally appeared in the January 21 edition of CAROLINA: The Magazine.
In December, Carolina lost Jabari Price and Tre Boston to graduation. Price and Boston were notably ‘thrown into the fire’ as freshmen when the NCAA investigation gutted the Tar Heel defense just before the 2010 season opener against LSU. The duo were secondary mainstays throughout their careers.
Yet, even with the departures Price, Boston, and Terry Shankle, Tar Heel associate head coach for defense feels very good about the defensive backfield moving forward. “I think we’re better right now than we were at any point the secondary leadership-wise, and that’s coming from the guys in the weight room,” Koenning said in an interview at Kenan Football Center last week. Koenning said he stopped by the weight room at 6:30 one Saturday morning and saw rising senior Tim Scott working on his speed, for example, and redshirt freshman Donnie Miles working on flexibility. “We’ve got some guys that have got some emotional maturity that are team-first guys back there,” he said.
In the past, Carolina defenders would often talk about having a ‘bend, don’t break’ attitude. See, for example, Boston’s interception of Middle Tennessee quarterback Logan Kilgore on the Blue Raiders’ first drive back on September 7. The visitors went from their own 25-yard line to 1st and goal at the Tar Heel 1 before a penalty and Boston’s interception bailed out the Heels.
On that day, the interception inspired the Tar Heel defense - Middle Tennessee wouldn’t get past midfield again in the first half - but the momentum could have very easily swung to the Blue Raiders.
So, the question is, instead of ‘bend, don’t break,’ why ‘bend’ at all? Koenning doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t think the defense will have to adopt that philosophy moving forward. Each cog in the machine of a defense affects another, and the coach expects to have stronger pieces in 2014. “We are as far away from [‘bend, don’t break’] as you can be, and we want to be,” he said. “But if you can’t cover, then you can’t blitz. Because if you blitz, then you’ve got to cover, so we push the envelope.”
Carolina dealt with several factors that contributed to a 1-5 start in 2013. Injuries riddled the roster; Koenning said often the players getting reps in two-a-days last fall were scout teamers or those who the coaches did not expect to contribute. Then, when the season began (with a schedule front-loaded with tough opponents). some of the would-be contributors were healthy but hadn’t gotten many practice reps. “Dominique Green, for example,” Koenning said. “Thank goodness we had him. He started every game at safety and had maybe 90 percent of the reps, yet he missed most of two-a-days.”
Green wasn’t the only freshman defensive back who saw meaningful playing time in 2013. Brian Walker and Desmond Lawrence both had their names called often in the latter half of the season. The coaching staff was hesitant to play them early against the likes of South Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, as those formidable opponents could have shaken the freshmen’s confidence. “It would have been an injustice to put them in those situations, and we could have hindered their progress,” Koenning said.
Green, Walker and Lawrence figure to be in the secondary mix from the get-go when spring practice rolls around. Miles comes off of his redshirt year looking to contribute, and Koenning mentioned the name of redshirt sophomore Clint Heaven as well. Scott, who leads all Tar Heels with 33 career starts, stands poised to add to that total and lead the Carolina secondary in 2014. Sam Smiley started four games at safety in 2012 but missed last season due to injury. Damien Washington converted from wide receiver to defensive back last fall and was a special teams standout.
Joining the Tar Heels in time for spring practice are Georgia safety Allen Artis and Virginia cornerback M.J. Stewart. Koenning said both will be eager to fight for playing time right away. They’ll push players like Darien Rankin, T.J. Jiles and Ryan Mangum. And Carolina could add more competition on National Signing Day. “It’s just like in the NFL,” Koenning said. “You draft some guys, and the veterans better daggum take it to another level. We’ve got some guys coming in that are going to force some guys that they better get their butts going. They’ve got spring to get up there, because these freshmen coming in aren’t going to take back seats to anybody. I guarantee it.”
So yes, Carolina’s secondary will be young when they take the field in the fall of 2014. But they’ve got experienced youth in the sophomore class, a leader in Scott, and motivated newcomers. Bend, don’t break? No thanks.