Cornerback Concerns

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If North Carolina intends to capitalize on its high preseason expectations and make some noise in the ACC Coastal Division this fall, new faces must emerge at cornerback to provide adequate depth at the defense's most volatile position.

At first glance, the Tar Heels' 2007 pass defense statistics look solid, if not impressive. Their 207.25 yards allowed per game ranked second to Clemson in the ACC and 27th nationally.

But a closer look at the numbers reveal that North Carolina's 130.11 pass efficiency defense rating ranked 11th in the ACC and 74th nationally. UNC's 11 interceptions tied for 3rd least (Duke, Virginia) in conference play, only in front of N.C. State (10) and Georgia Tech (5). And it should also be noted that only three of those interceptions can be attributed to the cornerback position.

Head coach Butch Davis indicated following Saturday's scrimmage that while red-shirt sophomore and returning starter Kendric Burney (50 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception) has solidified one of the cornerback spots, the other position is still up for grabs.

"[Other than Burney], all of the rest of them are basically unknown commodities," Davis said. "Jordan Hemby has never really ever played in a game and Johnny [White] and Richie [Rich] are new to the position so they're battling to compete… Right now, we're still a ways from naming starters."

One name missing from the equation is Charles Brown (59 tkl, 5 tfl, 2 int), who started nine games at either cornerback or nickel back in 2007. The sophomore landed wrong on his left ankle during 1-on-1 drills only days into training camp, and had been sidelined until Saturday.

"[Saturday] was his actual first full practice in almost a week," said Davis, who added that Brown was working at 75-80 percent. "So hopefully as he gets back into the mix, he'll be competing with the rest of those guys to start."

There have been some positives to surface within the experienced unit.

"If there's been one really right spot with our corners in the struggle to figure out who the starters are going to be, [it's that] they have tackled really well," Davis said. "Johnny White had some outstanding tackles [on Saturday]. Richie Rich has had some good tackles. Jordan Hemby is not very big – probably weighs 185 – but he's very, very fast and he will come up and put his face mask on the ball. I would say that at least two of the fumbles that were forced were caused by the secondary tackling."

The Tar Heels are in desperate need for someone to step up and secure this glaring hole in the secondary, and one player that has emerged from the shadows has been red-shirt sophomore Tavorris Jolly.

"Tavorris is one of those players that maybe the light is coming on," Davis said. "Sometimes, guys kind of languish in a little bit of ambiguity early in their career, not knowing exactly how to compete and what to do and what it takes to win. He's had a nice camp. So silently, he's kind of put himself in that mix."

Starting free safety Deunta Williams agreed with his head coach's sentiments during his post-scrimmage interview.

"I think T. Jolly has done a great job of coming up and playing," Williams said. "I was talking to [offensive coordinator John] Shoop today about guys that were stepping up – [Jolly] and Johnny White, and Jordan Hemby as well. Coach Davis talks a lot of junk for Jordan, so he makes Jordan have to back it up out there sometimes."

Williams also praised White's 4.34 40 speed – tops on the team – in making his offseason transition from running back less daunting.

"If he gets his hands on you, then you're not going to escape him because he's faster than you," Williams said. "So it's just a fact of him being so physical and that he demands receivers to make a move. He's still got a couple of things that he has to tweak, but we all do… You can't coach speed and you can't account for it sometimes, so if he lunges out when he's trying to jam someone, they may beat him off the ball, but he has the ability to catch back up with them."

The scary part for the Tar Heels is that, unlike all of the other position groups, help is not immediately in the recruiting pipeline. Red-shirt freshman Brian Gupton is a talented but raw prospect that joined the oft-injured LeCount Fantroy as the only cornerback recruits in UNC's 2007 recruiting class, and the Tar Heels did not even sign one CB prospect last February.

In other words, North Carolina will have to make due with what they have, and it's quite certain that opposing defenses will test the cornerbacks early and often when the regular season arrives in less than two weeks.

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