A 'Secondary' Focus

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As the North Carolina defense has gone from miserable to respectable in recent years, most of the concern surrounded the defensive front. The secondary endured its share of struggles as well, but was always a step ahead in its development. However, coach John Bunting admits the defensive backs thus far are not performing as well as he had hoped.

"It's not where we want it to be," Bunting said following Wednesday's practice.

The Tar Heels' (2-3, 1-1 ACC) secondary has done an admirable job in run support, as Kareen Taylor, Cedrick Holt, Quinton Person and Mahlon Carey are all among the team's top six tacklers. And Holt and Person have combined for a remarkable 44 solo stops to boot.

More and more, missed tackles in the UNC defensive backfield are becoming things of the past.

The pass coverage was adequate through the first four games. But after getting lit up at Louisville by quarterback Ben Brohm and Co. for 304 yards passing and four touchdowns – including a 73-yard bomb to wideout Mario Urrutia, questions arose about the direction the Carolina defensive backfield is headed.

"We played great the first four games," cornerback Jacoby Watkins said. "At Louisville, we just made too many mistakes. You can't do that against a good football team. We just came back to practice this week and we're going to get after it against Virginia."

Also glaring is the fact UNC has managed just one interception on the season – Holt's lone pick against Utah.

There is a variety of issues Bunting points to as causes for the recent lapse, noting the strong safety play has not been up to par and the health problems of Watkins.

"At the safety position between Mahlon and Trimane is not where I want it to be," he said. "And we all know, Jacoby has not been the guy he has been in the past.

"I think we're getting closer every day, and I'm waiting for that thing to turnaround."

"We both are going out every practice and trying to make the other one work harder," Goddard (pictured right) said of his competition with Carey for the starting strong safety position.

As for Watkins, he entered the season as the team's undisputed best cover corner. However he's been getting picked on more than usual this season, albeit he almost always is in charge of shutting down the opponent's best receiving threat.

Watkins was whistled for two crucial pass interference calls against the Cardinals.

"Just being aggressive, you might get a flag every once and a while," Watkins said. "For the most part, just play the ball. If you're playing the ball and he's playing the ball, and the referee misses the call; you just have to live with it. If he gets a little to physical, you might get the call.

"But you don't want to take your aggressiveness away from playing the ball and playing the receivers just because you're scared of getting the flag. That's Coach [Marvin] Sanders' philosophy – always be aggressive at the corner positions."

And what about his health? Vertigo is "a dizzy, confused state of mind," per Webster's. It's a diagnosed condition Watkins says he has had to deal with on and off all season long, and apparently has affected his play.

"From time to time I might get a headache or kind of a bad feeling, but most of the time I'm all right," Watkins said. "I'm just trying to get back on the field and be as healthy as I can as soon as possible."

But things can all turn back around with a win over No. 23 Virginia (4-2, 2-2) on Saturday. To a man – both from the coaches' and players' perspectives – the 69-14 loss at Louisville two weeks ago is being treated as an anomaly – or a "blip on the radar," as Bunting put it.

It had better be, as the Tar Heels wrap up the season with six straight conference games, four of their next five at home, and versus teams with a combined 19-6 record over the next four contests.

As of now, mathematically, UNC is still capable of winning the inaugural Coastal Division title. Of course, simply accumulating six wins and bowl-eligibility is the Tar Heels' more attainable goal. The outcome versus the Cavaliers may go a long way in determining which direction Carolina is headed for the second half of the season.

"It's going to be a tremendous game," Goddard said. "It's our out-of-state rival and it's an ACC game. It's going to be big because we're coming off a big loss – and everybody wants to forget about that – but we need to get back on a winning note. It's going to start back with this game, so it's vital that we do well."

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