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UNC secondary could have more options vs NC State despite injury to Ja’Qurious Conley

North Carolina has shuffled players in its secondary around so many times the past two seasons, there’s no panic when they’re asked to do it.

As the Tar Heels find themselves rotating players to make up for the loss of Ja’Qurious Conley for the remainder of the season, they actually believe in some ways they’ll be better on Friday facing N.C. State.

Conley started every game this season, primarily at nickel back, until he suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff of their win over Wofford last week.

UNC co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said they would move Trey Morrison, who has started at free safety, to fill the void left by Conley. Giovanni Biggers will take Morrison’s spot at free safety and make his second start of the season.

“He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s a big kid, who can play linebacker and nickel, that’s what you’re looking for, I think, at that spot,” Bateman said. “But Trey’s an elite nickel, it changes a little bit of what we do, but it also gives us a little bit more options, coverage wise.”

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North Carolina’s Ja’Qurious Conley (0) celebrates after an interception of Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong in the third quarter on Saturday, September 18, 2021 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett [email protected]

Conley is a big hitter, in the mold of old-school safeties like Ronnie Lott whose version of targeting was trying to dismember a receiver running a pattern across the middle. He finished the season fourth on the team in tackles. But Morrison is better in pass coverage.

“We’ll miss the big physicality and the playmaker that he is — we all know how good of a player he can be,” linebacker Cedric Gray said. “We’ll definitely miss him out there, but guys will step up and we’ll be just fine.”

Against a Wolfpack offense that ranks 13th in the ACC in rushing yards per game (127.1) and third in passing attempts (37.4 per game), Morrison could end up being a better fit. The caveat is the starters won’t get much relief from the bench, because the Heels don’t have many healthy, experienced players left.

Reserve cornerback Dae Dae Hollins was the first to have his season end with injury. Then it was Don Chapman, who moved from safety to start against Notre Dame at cornerback. He was injured against the Irish, but played the entire game and didn’t reveal he was hurt until after. Conley added to the list last week.

“Definitely losing JQ is a big loss,” Biggers said. “He’s definitely one of the most talented guys on the team. We’ve really got to step up and fill that void that he’s leaving on, but I think we’ve managed a really good rotation.”

Biggers has played a lot this season as a reserve, rotating in with Cam’Ron Kelly and Morrison at safety.

Carolina has put an emphasis on “cross training” its secondary the past two seasons. It paid off last year when injuries and attrition made it so that nine different players started in the secondary at some point, and they rarely played consecutive games with the same lineup.

The Heels want players to be able to fill multiple positions if they’re called upon and, more often than not, they’ve been called upon this week.

Bateman called N.C. State’s slot receiver Thayer Thomas a “complete” player, but the key to containing their offense may be how well Carolina’s cornerbacks matchup with outside receivers Emeka Emezie and Devin Carter.

Emezie and Carter, who are both 6-foot-3, will have a slight height advantage over UNC starting corners Storm Duck and Tony Grimes, who are both 6-feet. Bateman said he believed Emezie and Carter have improved the most from last season.

“We’ve got to play really well outside,” Bateman said. “They’re gonna force our corners to play man on those outside receivers and we’re gonna have to play really well. We have to compete and win and win throws.”

C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.



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