Many observers question the ability of the North Carolina defense, having lost eight of eleven starters. Almost overlooked is the Tar Heel secondary, which should be one of the best in the ACC.
In a two-part series, defensive secondary coach Jim Fleming provides an insightful and informative look at the secondary, and what that might mean for the 2002 defense and season.
Inside Carolina: Coach Fleming, I know you didn't get to see a lot today, but can you in general of hit the high spots on your starters maybe to begin with and then the key reserves?
Coach Fleming: First off they all returned in outstanding condition, which I think is contributable to Jeff (Connors) and the guys in the strength and conditioning program. I'm real excited about the group. I think it's got the potential to be an outstanding unit in this conference.
Corner spot, I feel really secure. (Michael) Waddell and (Kevin) Knight are the two guys in the starting spots, but you got DJ, Derrick Johnson, and you got Chris Hawkins. They've both had tremendous summers working out. DJ made a couple of really good plays today and Hawkins did a phenomenal job running this morning. He's got a tremendous amount of upside. And then there's an ace in the hole with Ronald Brewer. So, if you look at that many corners, usually you're satisfied going into a season with three. But, we've got legitimately five kids I think they can play and that will help us in the different substitutions packages we're going to have to play versus a lot of the spread sets. Miami (Ohio) has a straight-up, spread ‘em out and throw it all over the place offense. I think a lot of those kids will see plays in the first ballgame.
Safety spot -- I'm very excited. Everybody has been talking and singing Dexter's (Reid) praises, and I think they're earned. I think that he's got definite room for improvement, but he's a field general back there and I think that he can really hold down that free safety spot for us. Backing him up we've got some kids, Mike Harris and freshman Tommy Richardson, and a couple other guys that are in position to hopefully close the gap on them. So, if the bottom drops out, you got somebody that can go in and play. Mike Harris is in the second team spot right now, he had a good spring and we got to count on him to continue to develop.
Strong safety is probably one of the most interesting spots to watch during the courses of fall camp. You've got Chris Curry, who had a really good spring. Defonte (Coleman) was out and Curry took that spot and did a really good job with it in the spring. You've got Defonte, who had, from what I understand, a very good sophomore season, and probably a disappointing junior season last year with injuries and playing time and a lot of things that just didn't pan out for him.
Inside Carolina: He looks in great shape, though.
Coach Fleming: Are you kidding me? I mean, you look at those Greek gods that are chiseled out of stone -- that's him. For him, its going be getting down in the game speed and trying to compete. That's an open spot. I told Chris and I told Defonte that those guys will compete for the starting spot and that will be determined over the course of the training camp -- period.
I feel like both those kids should be able to play and help us. I feel good about that spot and I think that we've got kids that can run. Obviously with everybody in the country realizing the number of people we graduated in that front seven, the challenge is on the defensive backfield to be able to hold things under control until people develop, which I think, with our defense, it will happen.
Inside Carolina: Talk a little bit about the true freshman. It seemed to me that you liked what you saw there.
Coach Fleming: Ah, man, I was thrilled with that. I said on the first day, ‘Bring me a couple of those guys every year we'll be in good shape.' Jacoby Watkins has a gift that I can't coach, no matter how good a coach I am. I mean, he can flat run. He's got good skills out in the corner, and I think he's going be an excellent cover guy. He's got some work to do physically to improve himself, but that will happen. That's just the nature of being in this program.
Cedric Holt comes in - polished. He's got some real feel for this spot out there on the corner. He can run as well. I'm really excited with those two kids as young corner prospects. Tommy Richardson, out of Miami, he's a kid who's a big kid that we've got right now on a third team free safety spot and we'll him enough repetitions to keep him alive and get him up to speed on what we do. But, we think that he has the potential to get on the field this year and help us on special teams -- the same thing with those two corners.
John Deshields is a walk-on player who I was impressed with. I thought during the course of fall camp, he does some nice things - he was a quarterback in high school and he's learning something new. But, he's an athlete and he's a hard worker and so I'm excited about that group. I think they've got a change to be real good players down the road.
Inside Carolina: Coach Ron Case (Fleming interjects, "He is a great coach.") who was the defensive back coach for a little while, and John Tenuta, had different philosophies on free safety versus strong safety - which one was run support, which one was primarily pass protection - how do you designate those players?
Coach Fleming: I designate the safeties based upon the schematic structure that we're dealing with. Our safeties, we can call them free safety and strong safety, but what we ask them to do, they could be easily right and left. Meaning, that a strong safety might have to support the run, but at some time, he may have to play the deep, deep patterns. Same thing with a free safety. It gives us a versatility to be able to drop either one of them in the box to support the run.
Inside Carolina: So, neither one of the safeties really have more run responsibility than the other?
A: No, I think if you look at it, they're not what everybody reads - they think a free safety is a guy who sits in the middle of the field and roams around. You know Dexter, you've seen him, he's actively involved in everything. Even when I came in here, I kept looking at him and I