CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s defensive secondary has received the most headlines during the first three games of the season. M.J. Stewart stood out amongst his fellow defensive backs in Saturday’s win over Illinois, earning defensive player of the game honors from the coaching staff.
“When we go in and talk on Sunday about who were the guys that really well played in the game, this is three weeks in a row now for M.J.,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said during his live radio show on Tuesday night. “He’s really coming into his own. He’s really comfortable out there. He’s really aggressive. I couldn’t be happier because it’s really nice to have corners that can do that. You can do a whole lot more inside when you’ve got that kind of help outside because those guys are on an island.”
Stewart has started all three games this season opposite junior Des Lawrence at cornerback. The Arlington, Va. product leads the team in interceptions (2), pass breakups (3) and pass deflections (5) in addition to making 11 tackles.
Stewart intercepted Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt in the first quarter and returned the pick four yards to the Illini’s 41-yard-line. UNC scored a touchdown four plays later to take a 10-0 lead.
Fedora also praised the sophomore’s work on the edge of the punt return team opposite senior T.J. Jiles.
“You put both of those guys on the two gunners on the outside,” Fedora said. “They’re out in the open field with no help, because we didn’t double up anybody, and they dominated those two guys throughout the game. Those are the two that enable Ryan [Switzer] to get started.”
Illinois’ starting field position was its 26-yard-line. That’s the second week in a row your team has consistently backed its opponent up in the field position battle.
“One of our keys to victory every week in special teams is we have to win the field position battle, so all four units take a part in that as far as how we cover and how we do on the returns. Each week we figure it all out and determine whether or not we won the field position battle. It was a big margin last game, so our kids played well in that area.”
How did John Ferranto play against Illinois in place of injured left tackle Bentley Spain?
“He did well, and he had to play. He didn’t really have much of a choice. He was going to have to play and he did a good job. I think [offensive line coach Chris] Kapilovic got him out at one point and moved [Jon] Heck over and [R.J.] Prince up so he didn’t have to play the whole game. But John did a nice job.”
How do you try to improve the pass rush and is that a concern?
“There is concern. We have to continue to get better in that area. Those guys are doing a great job of squeezing and constricting the gaps they’re responsible for, but they are not transitioning into pass rush mode when you have to. We’ve got to get that done.”
What are your thoughts on how Romar Morris has helped the team thus far?
“Romar is doing a great job for us. He’s playing so many different roles. First of all, he’s on quite a few of our special teams. Then we’re able to move him now, we move him out of the backfield into a slot position and then motion him a lot. He’s learned both running back spots and he’s learned the slot receiver stuff, which is not an easy thing to do, so I’m pretty proud of what he’s been able to accomplish… He’s willing to do anything to get on the field. He’s hungry to get out there.”
Some college football coaches have advocated playing a preseason game against a FCS opponent prior to the official opening game of the season. Would you be in favor of that?
“No, I’m not interested. If you play 16 games, that’s a lot. To do it in the academic calendar that we’re trying to do, these are student-athletes. When you start doing that, they’re either going to have to come into camp a week earlier because you can’t push it the other way with Christmas and all of those things that time of the year. I’m not for it at all, no… Not unless you give me about 25 more scholarships.”