NCF Nation: Mywan Jackson

UNC secondary ready to reload

July, 21, 2011
7/21/11
2:00
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When North Carolina lined up against LSU in the season opener last year, the Tar Heels were without their entire starting secondary and top reserve safety, all of whom were held out of the game because of the NCAA investigation. The situation worsened in the first quarter when Mywan Jackson suffered a head injury. The Tar Heels turned to true freshman Tre Boston, and walk-on Pete Mangum was the nickel back.

[+] EnlargeMatt Merletti
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThe Tar Heels' Matt Merletti is part of an experienced secondary that learned on the job last season.
Nothing but experience could have possibly prepared any of them for that game.

“It’s hard to learn all of the signals,” safety Matt Merletti said. “You can’t hear when you’re out there, especially in the Georgia Dome. You can’t hear anything. It’s all hand signals. It’s like sign language. That was one of the hardest parts, making sure everyone knew the play. The first touchdown they scored, we were running two different plays. It was hard to try and get everybody on the same page. That was just inexperience.”

That was then.

On paper, North Carolina’s secondary looks like a concern, as three starters from a year ago must be replaced. On the field, though, there is enough talent and experience returning that the Tar Heels should be able to reload in the secondary, not rebuild. Last year’s disaster has turned into beneficial experience for this year’s group, which has come a long way since the loss to LSU.

“That was a huge, huge growing experience for us,” Merletti said. “Before the LSU game, I had had one play on defense. It was my sophomore year back in 2008. A lot of us, Tre, Jabari (Price), Gene Robinson and myself, we were really thrown into the fire so to speak. Our coaches called it baptism by fire. It’s hard to do at first, but it really does help you in the long run and you develop as players much quicker on defense.”

Last season, Charles Brown, who would have been a starter, missed the entire season because of the NCAA investigation. He returns this fall and is a projected starter. Safety Jonathan Smith, who was the third safety two seasons ago and played about 22-25 snaps a game, also missed last season because of the NCAA investigation, but returns as a projected starter this season. Both spent all of last season on the scout team. Boston, who moved from corner to safety this past spring, and Price, who started the final four games of 2010 at cornerback, are now expected to show even more progress as full-time starters.

Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said he doesn’t expect Brown or Smith to be rusty this fall.

“I think they’ll be fine,” he said. “They’ll get the speed of the game back. We do a lot of work good on good, so they’ll get the speed of the game back. I worry a little more if they’ve never played before, but they all have played. It’s just a matter of getting back in the flow and getting the speed of the game.”

Douglas said he wants more depth in the secondary, but the Tar Heels are in good shape with Merletti, who was the nickel back last season and will be the first safety in, Jackson, who has limited starting experience, and Robinson, who has played nickel, cornerback and safety. The staff has yet to determine what Robinson’s role will be this season, but he’s proven capable of three.

“The thing I think we’ve done is we’ve gotten bigger,” Douglas said. “I love KB (Kendric Burney) and those guys, but the corners we have now, we’re recruiting bigger kids. Our safeties are big, but by moving a corner to safety, I’m talking about Tre, you probably get a little more athletic. You worry about will he tackle? He proved in the spring, he faced up Ryan Houston several times in the spring, and I don’t expect we’ll play a back any bigger than him at 240. If he’ll stick his face in there against him, I imagine he’ll do it during the season.”

After last season’s surprise initiation, all of the rookie defensive backs should be better prepared to face the competition.

“It definitely made us confident,” Merletti said. “It doesn’t get any bigger than that. It was a good experience to have.”
As advertised ...

1. Florida State: The Noles have one of the best cornerback duos in the country in Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes. They combined for 33 passes defended last season, the most of any pair of cornerbacks in the nation. Mike Harris had 41 tackles and four picks as a reserve.

[+] EnlargeGreg Reid
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireFlorida State cornerback Greg Reid is also one of the ACC's top return men.
2. Virginia Tech: Jayron Hosley is one of the top boundary corners in the country, and the Hokies also have Kyle Fuller, who had six deflections last season, and Cris Hill (two deflections) at field corner.

3. Maryland: The Terps return both starters in Cameron Chism and Trenton Hughes, who combined for 36 career starts. Chism is a strong cover corner who had 70 tackles and eight deflections last season. Hughes had nine pass deflections.

4. NC State: Both starters return in C.J. Wilson and David Amerson. Wilson had 46 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups, and Amerson had 57 tackles. Justin Byers and Gary Grant also have experience.

5. North Carolina: The Tar Heels lost some remarkable talent in their secondary, including cornerback Kendric Burney, but there is a lot of depth at the position. Jabari Price started four games last season, Charles Brown has 22 career starts but sat out last season, and Mywan Jackson and Tre Boston both have at least four starts each.

6. Boston College: The Eagles will miss DeLeon Gause, but Donnie Fletcher has 17 career starts, 56 tackles last season, and led the team with five picks. C.J. Jones played in 12 games as a backup last season with 16 tackles. Dominique Williams also saw some time and had four tackles, and true freshman Al Louis-Jean, who was the No. 9 cornerback in the nation as ranked by ESPN Recruiting, enrolled early.

7. Clemson: It’s a young group, as the Tigers had to replace Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell. Xavier Brewer had 10 starts with 50 tackles and two interceptions last season, Coty Sensabaugh had 31 tackles in three starts, and senior Mansa Joseph will also be competing for playing time with sophomore Martin Jenkins.

8. Virginia: The Cavaliers return both starters in Chase Minnifield and Devin Wallace, but Wallace was suspended and missed spring ball and is still suspended. Wallace had 38 tackles and six breakups last season. Chris Broadnax, Rijo Walker, Drequan Hoskey and Pablo Alvarez will all compete for playing time.

9. Miami: The Hurricanes have to replace both starters in Brandon Harris and Ryan Hill. Jo-Jo Nicholas moved to corner and Brandon McGee, who was the nickel back last season, will compete along with Lee Chambers, Keion Payne, Nathan Gholston and true freshman Thomas Finnie, who had a great spring.

10. Georgia Tech: The Jackets had to replace their entire secondary, including cornerbacks Mario Butler and Dominique Reese. They’ve still got several cornerbacks with experience in Rashaad Reid, who started 14 games in 2008 and 2009, Rod Sweeting (38 tackles, seven pass breakups, one interception), Louis Young (10 tackles), and Michael Peterson (six tackles, one pass breakup).

11. Wake Forest: The Deacs have a deep enough secondary that they can live without the experience of cornerback Kevin Johnson, who started five games last season but will sit out this season while academically ineligible. Josh Bush had 33 tackles and four pass breakups last season, Kenny Okoro is a rising star, A.J. Marshall has three starts and Dominique Tate returns after missing last season while on academic suspension.

12. Duke: Ross Cockrell is a returning starter and finished last season with 60 tackles and 10 passes defended. He was only a freshman but he tied for eighth in the ACC with passes defended with 10 in 12 games. Johnny Williams had four pass breakups last season.

Pregame observations

November, 13, 2010
11/13/10
3:05
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina running back Shaun Draughn was running around during warm-ups catching passes and taking hand-offs, despite a nagging ankle injury. He didn't look in pain, but that doesn't mean he's not. He went over to Anthony Elzy, who is expected to start, and gave him an encouraging shake on the shoulder pads.

There are no lineup changes for Virginia Tech. For UNC, backup defensive tackle Jared McAdoo will get his first career start at left defensive end, and freshman Jabari Price will start over Mywan Jackson at corner.

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