Ben Sherman/Inside Carolina

CB Depth Paying Dividends

Experience in the secondary will allow for versatility in scheme.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s cornerbacks are primed to make amends for their miscues in recent years with experienced depth and a new approach.

Four cornerbacks have starting experience, another played significant snaps last season and a sixth has made a splash as a true freshman in training camp.

Sophomore M.J. Stewart is currently working with the ones opposite of junior Des Lawrence, while seniors Malik Simmons and T.J. Jiles, junior Brian Walker and freshman Mike Hughes are rounding out the three-deep at cornerback.

“Any time you have some depth in the secondary, it allows you to have matchup capabilities,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said on Thursday. “So it’s not just having bodies, but it’s having guys that are in the right spots doing what we ask them to do. It helps that we have some guys that have played at that position before, but the more guys we can develop as nickel- and dime-type people, the better off we’ll be, flexibility-wise.”

Such a deep group, combined with a limited number of starting roles, creates a competitive atmosphere in the North Carolina locker room.

“We’re all brothers, but when we step on the field, we’re all competitive,” Stewart said. “So we all push each other to get better, and overall that helps our team, and helps our defense.”

The Tar Heels’ cornerback unit looks to thrive under new secondary coach Charlton Warren. The team has participated in a more detail-oriented camp this offseason.

“It’s been more of an emphasis on details and doing things fundamentally right,” Lawrence said. “They want to make sure we know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

The secondary ranked 101st in the country in passing yardage allowed and 115th in opposing passing efficiency last season. Missed assignments, blown coverage and poor tackling were key factors.

“We’ve really worked on fitting the tackle, shooting your hands, pushing your hips through, and angles to the tackle,” Stewart said.

While the 4-2-5 base scheme is history, UNC will still employ a similar set with its nickel package. Due to the depth at cornerback, Stewart slides to nickel back and Walker enters to man the open cornerback slot in that pass defense set.

“This is my first year at the nickel,” Stewart said. “I’m very excited to play the position.”

Warren praised Stewart for having a “strong camp” thus far, and added that Hughes has excelled from a competitive standpoint with his energy and athleticism.

“He kind of reminds me of (Walker) when he first got here, somebody who makes plays early,” Lawrence said of Hughes. “He’s really fast, he can move, he’s still a young guy. The way he plays and his attitude to the game is above most people that you see coming in here.”

Senior middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer, who has emerged this offseason as the defense’s clear leader, told reporters he’s been impressed by the sheer confidence that the secondary has shown during the preseason.

“The confidence they’re playing with is something I haven’t seen since I’ve been here,” Schoettmer said.

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