CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The success of UNC’s secondary this season has often been overshadowed by the defensive struggles up front. The unit was finally allowed to shine in Saturday’s 20-13 win over Miami when the Tar Heels’ front seven, specifically the defense line, delivered a dominant performance.
It was the play of veteran cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence, both All-ACC players in 2015, that highlighted the secondary’s play. Both corners were in full lockdown mode, as the Hurricanes’ wide receivers caught a total of four passes in the game.
For UNC head coach Larry Fedora, nothing about the two cornerbacks play this season has surprised him.
“They picked up right where they left off last year,” Fedora said on his radio show on Tuesday. “M.J. is having a fabulous year and Des didn’t get a single rep of practice last week and still was able to play and play at a high level. He played really good for the first three quarters, but he didn’t feel like he played well in the fourth quarter.”
Fedora said he knows that no matter what’s happening on defense, he can trust his veteran corners. In fact, both Stewart and Lawrence have yet to give up a touchdown this season in one-on-one coverage.
The play of the duo has had a positive effect on the younger secondary members, including freshman safety Myles Dorn, who made a game-changing tackle on a 42-yard run by Miami’s Joseph Yearby to prevent a touchdown and eventually force a field goal. All tog hat, plus the improved play of the defensive line, has shown what this secondary is capable of, according to Fedora.
“We stopped the run,” he said. “We gave up one little catastrophic run that Myles Dorn ran down and other than that there was nowhere for them to run. I think they would have been well under 100 yards if we had stopped that one little run.
“That made them have to go to air, and they were not going to beat us in the air.”
Where is the biggest improvement been on the defensive side of the ball as it’s been improving over the weeks?
“I think our D-Line has gotten better and better every week. They really have come on and are getting pressure on the quarterback when they need to, they stop the run, very seldom do the running backs get to the second level so that was a great surge by the D-Line.”
Your team was 14-of-23 on third downs against Miami. What allowed for that type of success on those plays?
“Well it was a huge challenge all week that we knew Miami was good on third down and that we needed to be good on third down. We needed to stay on the field – I think we had 90-something plays on offense. A lot of that was because we converted and stayed on the field and the defense got off the field.”
Was it encouraging to win a game in this way? In a more defensive-oriented way?
“Yeah, I’m real excited that we held them to 13 points, I’m not excited we only scored 20. I’m not excited about that at all. As long as we score one more point than the opponent, I said everybody would be happy, but I didn’t say I’d be happy.”
How do you replace Mack Hollins at wide receiver?
“(Austin) Proehl played the rest of the game at that position. We’ll move Proehl outside and play him along with Anthony Ratliff and they’ll split time over there. Bug (Howard) and (Jordan) Cunningham will play on the other side.”
Malik Carney’s strip sack late in the fourth quarter really put you guys in a good position to win the ballgame.
“It really did. So we talked about the offense having been on the field in two-minute situations and being successful and it’s something that we practice a lot. Each day on Wednesday when we do it we’ve talked about it the last couple of weeks because the defense was successful the last couple of times in practice against the offense. We told them their time is coming. So they were out there with about 1:23 on the clock and they got the job done.”
It seemed like the Miami game was a high-level punting game. What were your thoughts on that?
“Both punters took their returners out of the game. Our punt team and what Tom (Sheldon), I think we’re sixth in the country in punt return defense. We’ve given up six returns for one yard. I think the longest return was a three-yarder, that was the one that hit off the guy's legs. So he’s doing a great job of hanging the ball up there. We’re in the top-10 in net punting. I’ll give Vogel from Miami a lot of credit, because he was hanging the ball up there. His hang time was incredible. Ryan (Switzer) really never had an opportunity to do anything.”
What is the box you were holding in the locker room after the game as you were speaking to the team?
“One game a year we have a dedication ceremony where our players decide who they want to honor in their lives by their play. On Friday night they write it on a card, go up to their teammates and tell everybody who they’re dedicating the game to. Then they put it in the box, we lock the box, and then we put it on the sideline. We talk about it after the game. We’ve done it every year that we’ve been here.”
Was Mack Hollins the fast player on the team? If not Mack, who do you think is the fastest?
“You’ve got about six or seven guys that would all claim that they’re the fastest. I don’t know. If you’re saying fastest in a 40, fastest in a 60, whatever. I can tell you this, the longer Mack goes, the faster he gets. With his stride length and everything he can really accelerate… At some point this season they told me he hit 25 miles per hour.”