UNC Football: 2022 Positional Preview: Cornerbacks
The UNC football program will rely on the development of the cornerbacks to improve a defense that struggled at times a season ago.
With Gene Chizik returning to Chapel Hill to serve as the defensive coordinator for the UNC football program, the defense will look different during the 2022 season.
A new scheme and new faces will be present, as the UNC football program lost Tomon Fox, Jeremiah Gemmel, and Kyler McMichael to the NFL.
In addition to the NFL-bound Tar Heels, Eugene Asante and Trey Morrison entered the transfer portal, leaving a path to playing time open on the North Carolina defense.
Similar to many other position groups, the cornerback room is surrounded by question marks heading into the new season.
Our positional previews continue with the cornerback position, a group with some established talent along with new faces and inexperience.
What We Know
The North Carolina secondary was part of a defense in Chapel Hill that surrendered 418.5 yards per game and 52 touchdowns on the season.
Part of this can be attributed to injuries to veterans Storm Duck and Ja’Qurious Conley, who missed a combined nine games in 2021.
What we do know is that Duck will be limited in the season opener and Conley will not be dressed out.
With the Tar Heels playing Florida A&M and Georgia State in two of the season’s first three games, there will be learning opportunities and room for the secondary to gain experience.
The Key Players
The heralded five-star recruit enters his junior season in Chapel Hill after reclassifying into the class of 2020. Grimes will undoubtedly be the leader of the North Carolina secondary, hoping to bounce back from the defense’s tough 2021 season.
Despite being the age of a rising sophomore, Grimes enters the 2022 season as a veteran in the Tar Heel secondary, a group that returns all but one starter.
With Gene Chizik taking over and Grimes entering his first draft-eligible year, expect a big jump and increased leadership role for the Virginia Beach, Virginia native as he looks to emerge as a star in the ACC.
2021 Stats: 47 total tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and nine pass breakups
When Storm Duck has been on the field, he has been one of the most impactful players on the North Carolina roster. The problem is Duck has been a recipient of the injury bug, appearing in just eight games over the past few seasons.
As the season opener approaches, the Boiling Springs, South Carolina native will be restricted, after missing a majority of training camp.
If Duck is able to stay healthy, he will be one of the biggest difference makers in the conference.
2021 Stats: 16 total tackles and one pass breakup
Ja’Qurious Conley is another Tar Heel who has missed time due to injury, tearing his ACL against Wofford last season.
While he spent much of the season at safety, he transitioned to the nickel back position as the season progressed.
With the change at defensive coordinator, Conley may see time at both safety and cornerback. Like Duck, he is destined to make an impact once he is cleared to return from injury.
2021 Stats: 46 total tackles, three tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, and one fumble recovery
With Storm Duck being limited against Florida A&M, redshirt freshman Dontae Balfour will start for the Tar Heel secondary.
Balfour appeared in just two contests as a freshman but was rated a four-star recruit and the 17th-ranked cornerback in the class of 2021.
As he has thrust himself into the rotation on defense, it appears Balfour has impressed the coaching staff during spring and summer practice.
The Starke, Florida is an intriguing piece of the Gene Chizik-led defense. If Balfour is able to produce consistently, he will add even more depth and talent to a position group that has a high ceiling.
2021 Stats: N/A
Marcus Allen enters Chapel Hill as a four-star recruit in the class of 2021, already inserting his name on the depth chart.
The Marietta, Georgia native is slated to be in the rotation at cornerback as he’s expected to see action in the season opener.
Allen was a heralded recruit coming out of high school as he earned three all-state selections and recorded 47 tackles and 16 pass breakups as a senior. His success seems to have transferred to the collegiate level, as he appears to have caught the eyes of the Tar Heel staff.
Another heralded cornerback recruit heads to North Carolina for his freshman season, as Tayon Holloway joins the Tar Heel defense.
A four-star recruit, Holloway was a top-200 recruit and the No. 24 cornerback in the class of 2021.
He joins a talented young group who look to contribute alongside the veterans in the UNC secondary.
The talent in the Tar Heel secondary is evident, but it remains to be seen how healthy they will be. Storm Duck and Ja’Qurious Conley are a major part of the defensive plans and would give North Carolina a top secondary in the conference.
With a combination of seasoned veterans and heralded freshmen, they have the potential to have a plethora of talent and depth. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees with the health of those nursing injuries and plenty of question marks remain in the secondary.
The emergence and performance of the defensive backs will go a long way in determining the success of the UNC football program and will be an interesting development as the season progresses.
STARTERS: Tony Grimes, Dontae Balfour
BACKUP: Marcus Allen, Storm Duck
*Ja’Qurious Conley was not listed on the initial depth chart due to injury*
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