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.
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.”