But for possibly an even more telling look into the secondary's depth issues in Atlanta, consider this – two weeks ago, the nickel back three-deep included cornerback Mywan Jackson and safeties Gene Robinson and Matt Merletti. All three of those players had to start at other positions against LSU, forcing junior walk-on Peter Mangum to take snaps at nickel back.
North Carolina's starting lineup in the secondary included two true sophomores (Jackson and Robinson), a red-shirt junior sidelined for all of '09 due to ACL surgery (Merletti) and a red-shirt junior whose primary playing time has come on special teams (LeCount Fantroy).
"For some of us, it was our first time," true freshman backup cornerback Tre Boston said. "It was my first time being out there. Eighty thousand plus in the Georgia Dome – you don't expect that for your very first game."
That's not to say the inexperienced defensive backs didn't want to play against LSU. Every player that Butch Davis has recruited to Chapel Hill arrives not only wanting to play, but expecting to play. Granted, none of those players wanted to earn playing time because of the circumstances surrounding the investigation.
The two weeks leading up to the season opener provided an ever-changing puzzle at Navy Fields as the North Carolina coaching staff moved players up and down the depth chart in an effort to make various contingency plans.
"We just took it one day at a time," Boston said. "We talked to Kendric Burney and Charles Brown a lot. They told us that if it came out that they weren't playing, then we would have to produce and we would have to make big plays just like if they were playing for us. And that's what we did. We acted just like, ‘Okay, they're older brothers, if they need us to do this for them, then we're going to do it. We're going to produce for our team.'"
But once kickoff arrived, players that had been able to lean on seniors like Brown, Burney, Searcy and Williams were no longer afforded that luxury. They had to stand up for themselves.
"There were butterflies because like I told Jonathan Smith the other day, I went from being little brother to big brother," Robinson said. "Everybody was looking at me and asking me what the call was. So I had to grow up real fast."
It appeared as though LSU had rattled the Tar Heels with a pair of big offensive plays that sandwiched around Patrick Peterson's 87-yard punt return for touchdown. Wide receiver Russell Shepard took a handoff in the backfield, broke through the line of scrimmage and took advantage of Merletti being pulled out of position at safety to score on a 50-yard touchdown scamper.
Two series later, Tigers quarterback Jordan Jefferson (15-of-21, 151 yards, 2 TD, INT) attacked Boston on a post route for a 51-yard touchdown pass to Rueben Randle. But as it turns out, North Carolina was a man short in the back seven on that particular play.
"We had one linebacker who wasn't on the field," Boston said. "Only 10 people on the field. I'm trying to communicate to the safety, and the safety is trying to get another linebacker on the field. We didn't get the communication and they went deep ball. But it's alright – that happens. It just matters how you handle it the next series."
The Tar Heels not only handled the next series, they handled the entire second half. The Tigers were held scoreless and managed just 118 total yards – 52 through the air – after intermission.
"We settled down," said Robinson, who tied for the team lead with eight tackles. "In the first quarter, you get your feet wet and you realize that you can play. We can play. We're here, we can play. So we settled down and we played good ball."
Boston appeared to age as the second half moved along, tallying three tackles, one interception and one pass breakup, while forcing two fumbles. The last one occurred on LSU's final drive as the Tigers were attempting to run out the clock.
"The kid's a baller – a playmaker," Robinson said. "Actually after that touchdown – there was confusion in the secondary – but I told him, ‘Just calm down, settle down, because you're going to make a play because all training camp, all you've been doing is making plays.' And he told me, ‘I got you, big bro, I got you.'"
There's no doubt that North Carolina would benefit tremendously if the starting quartet returned to the playing field next Saturday against Georgia Tech, but the Tar Heels are now better prepared in case that possibility doesn't come to fruition. Credit that development to this staff's ability to recruit talent and coach it up.
"At first, I thought we could do it, but now, I know we can do it," Robinson said. "We have players in the secondary and we have a great coaching staff, so I feel like we can go and play with the best."